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The Power of Filming Police

Six years ago, a poll taken after a similar killing showed that only 43% of Americans saw a wider trend of excessive police violence.

The new acknowledgment of problems in policing seems to cut across many social boundaries. Three-quarters of Americans support the protests sparked by Floyd’s killing, including a majority of Republicans and independents. A June poll released by Monmouth found that a strong majority of Americans, including half of White Americans, think police officers are more likely to mistreat Blacks than Whites.

The New York Times described this shift in opinion as a “drastic change,” and it is not necessary to look far afield to discover the impetus behind the change. While the influence of social justice activists and advocates for criminal justice reform should not be discounted, the most potent catalyst for changing public opinion has been very simple — a seemingly endless stream of shocking videos showing episode after episode of unjustifiable police violence.

Video evidence is compelling. It removes many of the clouds that can distort firsthand accounts, and video changes the victim of violence from a faceless stranger into someone whose humanity is undeniable. It is a very different experience, for example, to read about a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, as compared to watching nearly nine minutes of the non-chalance of the officer while Floyd pleads for his life.

The video of Floyd’s killing is an example of a remarkable transformation in American society over the last 20 years. Cameras have gone from an anomaly to omnipresence. Nearly everyone in America has a camera in his or her pocket and added to that is the astonishing network of traffic cameras, security cameras, dashboard cameras, and every other kind of camera imaginable.

Compare, for instance, the remarkable circumstances that allowed the beating of Rodney King to be filmed to the three bystanders who filmed Floyd’s murder. The ubiquity of cameras has transformed America into a place where nearly every public act is preserved, including public interactions with the police.

Police have, not surprisingly, tried to resist being included in this new reality. Early on, police would try to intimidate citizens with cameras or even try to destroy the video. Police unions protested dashboard and body camera for years, and in some jurisdictions, they succeeded.

It is not difficult to understand why police do not like cameras. Far too often, videos of police encounters have shown discrepancies between what police say happens and what the film shows.

After the video became public, Minneapolis police said Floyd died from a “medical incident.” In Buffalo, police said a 70-year-old protester tripped and fell; video showed he was pushed down by two officers while standing passively in front of a police skirmish line. Texas police said the officer who pulled Sandra Bland out of her car was threatened, but dashcam video showed the officer grew enraged because Bland refused to extinguish her cigarette.

The weight of video evidence is beginning to tell. Without this evidence, discipline was a rarity and prosecutions almost non-existent. Now, however, officers caught on video are being disciplined and even charged. The officers who pushed the protester in Buffalo were suspended, and the officers involved in Floyd’s murder have all been charged.

The lesson is clear — video is the key to holding police accountable, especially in communities that are routinely over­policed and more likely to suffer from excessive force. Video also is critical in the continuing campaign to create widespread political pressure for policing reform. 


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