With another death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer roiling the nation this week, the continuation of the well-established and long-running pattern of police abuse in America is starting to seem depressingly inevitable. Based on recent history, it seems a safe bet that we will see another such killing in a few more months. And a few months after that. And a few months after that.
While the evidence against North Charleston Officer Michael Slager in the shooting death of Walter Scott seems unambiguous, there’s no way to know what the next such incident will look like. We can’t predict who will witness the next assault, how clear-cut the evidence will be, how open and clean the investigation will be, or how the justice system’s known bias in favor of law enforcement will play out. But in the past year, we’ve seen enough scenarios to learn that one factor can make all the difference in whether the victim and his family have a chance at justice.
Many people this week have noted that if it weren’t for the video clearly showing Scott being shot several times in the back, Slager probably would have evaded a murder charge. When officers are involved in shootings, they get to tell their own version of events, and the dead victims don’t. An investigation may or may not turn up accounts from credible witnesses. In some instances, having multiple eyewitnesses can even muddle an investigation, as was the case in the Ferguson shooting death of Michael Brown, which produced contradictory eyewitness accounts. When that happens, extra weight often seems to be given to the officer’s account by default.
But in cases in which video has been able to provide an indisputable version of events, ambiguity has often been eliminated and justice has appeared a bit more likely. The fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year was caught on surveillance video and was ruled a homicide; Cleveland Officer Timothy Loehmann is the focus of a deadly-force investigation that will present its findings to a grand jury. Without video, the world would not know that Loehmann shot Rice after just a few seconds, and public pressure to act would be less. (We don’t yet know what will happen to Loehmann, but the video appeared to contradict his story that he warned Rice three times before shooting.) South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert was videotaped by his cruiser’s dashboard camera when he shot motorist Levar Jones as Jones reached for his driver’s license; Groubert was fired from the force and is facing an aggravated assault charge. (Jones survived his wounds.)
While criminal justice reform and structural change should remain the ultimate goals of anyone seeking a more just American justice system, the legacy of centuries of white supremacy is not disappearing overnight. In the meantime, concerned citizens should consider it their civic duty to take out their phones and start filming when a police encounter seems to be getting out of hand.
Obviously, videotaping police doesn’t always result in the right outcome. Eric Garner’s choking death was captured on video, yet that wasn’t enough for a grand jury to indict New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Apparently the video didn’t prove the officer’s intent was to kill, and therefore he was allowed to go free. The fatal shootings by police of John Crawford III at an Ohio Walmart and Kajieme Powell on a St. Louis sidewalk were also caught on video, but police justified their actions by saying the men were armed (one with an airsoft rifle, the other with a knife), so the footage didn’t lead to criminal prosecutions. Even when video recordings haven’t resulted in prosecutions or convictions of police officers, though, the outrage they generate has created pressure for police reforms.
Such outcries last year led lawmakers and activists nationwide to call for laws requiring officers to wear body cameras. That’s one way of getting some useful video footage, but that solution comes with major shortcomings and many police departments are resisting such measures.
So we have to find another, more immediate solution. The most effective thing ordinary Americans can do to stop these shootings and the most effective way to make police departments accountable right now is to take more video of police confrontations. We’ve reached the point where this is the socially responsible thing to do, right up there with reporting child neglect and spousal abuse. (Keep your distance and don’t interfere when taping, of course, and be aware that exercising your right could come with risks: Police might try to seize your camera, detain you, or worse.)
The anonymous person who recorded Walter Scott’s slaying has been hailed as a hero. You can be a hero too. If you see something, film something.