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Filming Police Interactions Hasn't Increased Accountability

As officer interactions with black and Hispanic Americans are increasingly captured on film, courts still aren't ruling against police.
Guns and Cameras

"What I do wrong," Ed Truitt asked the police officer pointing both a gun and a flashlight into his car early one Sunday morning. "Shut your car off," the West Helena Police Department officer yelled, before glancing over at Truitt's phone, which was recording the incident and streaming on Facebook Live. The officer screamed "Gun!" toward his colleagues behind him after Truitt asked him, "You want to shoot me?"

Truitt wasn't holding a gun.

Truitt, an African-American man, refused to comply with the police officer, choosing instead to keep recording and keep his hands in the air. Eventually, the officer told him, "I'm filming too," before pulling Truitt out of the car. The phone fell onto the ground and the screen went black as the officer grabbed him by the hands.

The day of his interaction with the police, Truitt told a reporter at a local Arkansas news channel, WREG, that hitting record on his phone as the police officer approached his vehicle "saved my life." A 2015 Bureau of Justice report concluded black and Hispanic United States residents who had police-initiated contact were more likely "to experience the threat or use of physical force by police." Social media videos around such police encounters have increasingly become common in recent years, with sometimes deadly confrontations between black Americans and police officers forever embedded into the visual world. Even so, databases of officer-involved shootings, like the Washington Post's, suggest the number of officer-involved shootings each year have remained steady. There is little evidence to suggest Facebook Live streaming—or viral cell phone footage uploaded to social media—has had a significant impact on police interactions.

Sandra Bland filmed her arrest during a traffic stop in 2015, though the video was only released this year. A bystander caught Eric Garner gasping for air, repeating nearly a dozen times, "I can't breathe" as a New York police officer put him in a chokehold, a move technically banned by the police department in 2014. Philando Castile's girlfriend streamed his final moments before a police officer shot him multiple times during a traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016. In one of the most widely seen videos ever of a confrontation between an officer and a black man, a passerby caught an officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, shooting an unarmed Walter Scott in the back as he ran from the officer, who initially cited self defense.

Though many of the videos of these violent incidents resulted in trending social media hashtags, the Black Lives Matter movement, and nationwide protests, none of them led to prison time for a police officer (the officer who shot Scott was sent to prison on obstruction of justice charges, ultimately unrelated to the video). It's rare to see a video feed impact a trial of a police officer, let alone lead to a conviction. In most cases, videos lead to more questions about what happened before or after filming to cause the shooting or interaction. Societally and culturally, they tend to spark outrage and awareness but rarely result in prison time.

While the use of civilian-filmed video feeds hasn't been studied, research suggests police officers are possibly held to account more with the presence of their own body-worn cameras. In a 2016 study, researchers found, among the United Kingdom and U.S. police departments observed, a 93 percent decrease in civilian complaints when officers were wearing body cameras, suggesting this might be because of an "observer effect"—influencing both police and civilian behavior.

But many experts observe that, even with the rise of viral videos of police-related incidents, when cases come to trial the burden of proof still falls on the victim and police are given the benefit of the doubt.

Christ Stewart, a civil rights attorney in Atlanta who has represented dozens of families affected by officer-involved incidents, including Scott's family, says that videos offer firsthand proof, "but at the end of the day it isn't the end all and be all [and] it's not the game changer people think."

Videos don't "wholly rebalance the inequalities and the power relationships," says Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For example, in the Garner incident in 2014 in Staten Island, where the disciplinary trial for the officer involved is currently ongoing, the grand jury case had nothing to do with video, Zuckerman says. Though the video was released almost immediately after the incident and went viral, it has had little impact on the officer involved: The police department did not take independent action against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, instead allowing him to stay on desk duty for five years while still getting paid.

"The presumption of innocence on behalf of the police officer is so strong that the guilt is always assumed to lie with the person they shot," says Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. "So that person has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as it were, that they didn't deserve to be shot."

Zuckerman does note videos have, in some cases, proven helpful in trial: It was only after video surfaced of officer Michael Slager shooting Scott in North Charleston that the officer was charged with murder. "So the video can absolutely have an impact," he adds. "And I would expect communities of color to get quite systemic about picking up the phones and using it. The trick is that, unfortunately, it's not a guarantee of justice. And it's not a guarantee of safety."

"I think the truth is, unfortunately, you know, video is just another document," Zuckerman adds, "and those documents demand interpretation."

Further, some believe the proliferation of video—whether from a civilian, closed-circuit television, or law enforcement—can be both a blessing and a curse. Stewart notes that, often, police will wait months, if not longer to release body-worn camera or CCTV footage, citing ongoing investigations. By that time, he points out, another shooting or incident will have grabbed the public's attention. "By that time, the public have moved on," Stewart says. "[T]he negative side is, the public is becoming desensitized to it."

In Truitt's case, the livestream, later posted as a video to his Facebook page, was viewed nearly one million times and warranted only a couple brief mentions in national outlets just 10 days after the incident. According to NBC News, the Helena-West Helena officer in the video has been placed on administrative leave, though the police department refused to release or confirm any information to Pacific Standard.