Justice Through a Lens

A new wave of apps offers assistance—and advice—for citizens capturing police wrongdoing on camera.

North Charleston police officer Michael Slager (R) is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott.
Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder on April 7, 2015 after a video showed him shooting Walter Scott as he ran away.

Photo via Handout/Reuters

About 10 times a day, Darren Baptiste gets an email informing him that footage of police brutality may have been posted to YouTube through software he developed. Baptiste is the creator of CopWatch, an iPhone app that helps people record police-citizen interactions, upload them directly to the Internet, then alert Toronto-based activist group the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence to the material’s existence. Most of the videos that are whisked from people’s phones to Baptiste’s eyes are mundane test recordings by people just trying out the app for the first time. He ends up seeing a lot of shots of people’s socks. But occasionally, the video will reveal a dashboard view from a car stopped in traffic. As a cop marches up to the driver’s side window, Baptiste will watch and wait to see how the event ends. “Thankfully, none of those incidents have gone sideways yet,” Baptiste told me. But with every new email, he braces himself for the worst.

CopWatch launched in January of 2014, as if anticipating the year that police brutality would go viral. In July, a New York cop held Eric Garner in a banned chokehold while Garner protested, “I can’t breathe.” A friend filmed Garner’s death on his cellphone from a few feet away. In August, audio of the police shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown was inadvertently recorded by a neighbor, then played back on CNN; several bystanders filmed the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death. In November, a security camera directed at a Cleveland park recorded a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, running around and playing with an airsoft gun. It also recorded cops driving their car onto the grass, jumping out of the police vehicle, and shooting Rice with a real weapon.

This week, another white cop killed another unarmed black man on tape. This time, the video was longer, clearer, and closer than any we’d seen before. Chris Hayes called it “instantly iconic.” At first, South Carolina cop Michael Slager claimed that he shot and killed 50-year-old Walter Scott because he feared for his life after Scott commandeered the cop’s Taser during a routine traffic stop gone bad. But the leaked cellphone video of the incident, recorded by a 23-year-old bystander named Feiden Santana, contradicts Slager’s narrative. From his vantage point behind a chain-link fence, Santana captures Slager shooting Scott eight times in the back as Scott runs away from the officer. After Scott hits the ground and Slager cuffs his lifeless wrists behind his back, Slager can be seen running to retrieve a handheld object, then returning to drop it near Scott’s body. The video was published Tuesday night on the home page of the New York Times. Notably, given the paper’s strict profanity policy, Santana can be heard saying: “Oh, shit. Oh shit. Shit.”

Santana talks about the act of capturing evidence as if it were a reflex. “I was just witnessing it with my eyes and letting the phone do the work,” he told MSNBC Wednesday night. His video arrives as organizations like the NEPV and the ACLU are encouraging more citizens to make more videos of more incidents, and to remind cops that they’re always being watched. Joining the CopWatch app is Mobile Justice, a free Android app developed by local ACLU chapters in Oregon, Missouri, Mississippi, and Nebraska that allows users to record videos of cops behaving badly and automatically zip them over to their local ACLU branches. And the International Evidence Locker, an app that will help bystanders record evidence of systematic abuse, encrypt it, and send it directly to a human rights organization, is currently in development by students at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and members of Amnesty International.

The main feature shared by all of these services is the ability to quickly send video evidence straight from the witness’s private device and into the public sphere. Though Americans have a constitutional right to record video in public, the ACLU says it has monitored “a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.” In some cases, cops have confiscated cameras from bystanders recording arrests and then deleted the photo and video evidence they contain. These apps ensure that even a snatched phone’s video will reach the public eye. For extra protection, the ACLU app allows users the option to have their phone “automatically enter lock mode” while recording a police incident, so that prying cops can’t peer inside without a password. If a video is deleted from a phone, CopWatch encourages users to download recovery software like PhotoRec to help resuscitate lost evidence.

The explicit justification for these apps is to help deter police misbehavior and supply evidence against them should they fall out of line. But Baptiste admits that “the expectation has outstripped the reality” in terms of the influence of these videos in securing a verdict. Instead, Baptiste hopes the videos spark a conversation “about what it’s going to take to make the killings stop” and help inspire local citizens to stand up for themselves. “People feel powerless next to a cop with a gun and a night stick and a can of pepper spray,” he says. “Now, they have a camera.” Citizen-captured video “has opened the eyes of a lot of people who in the past have generally trusted the police over every accused criminal—especially if the accused criminal is a black man,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology.

The CopWatch and ACLU apps pair their video technology with informative guides that remind users of their rights while warning them about the potential hazards of capturing the shot. The ACLU advises amateur videographers to “announce that you are reaching for your phone” so an aggressive cop doesn’t mistake it for a weapon; if an officer “forbids or prevents you” from filming, users are urged to “not argue or resist” and to agitate for their rights later, in a court of law. CopWatch’s 35-page online guidebook advises that witnesses maintain a space of 10 feet between themselves and the incident, and tells them never to walk “within striking distance of a police officer.” Witnesses should also be careful to avoid minor, common infractions while otherwise legally filming a scene, like standing on the street instead of the sidewalk. Because a witness of police misconduct can sometimes become its target, CopWatch advises users to “have a friend present when you decide to record community-police interactions”: One person to film the cop, and another to film the person filming the cop.

These guides hope to keep amateur witness videos safe and legal. But they also aim to make them more sophisticated. In 2013, Carlos Miller, founder of the citizen journalist advocacy website Photography Is Not A Crime, published a list of guidelines for amateur videographers of police interactions. Rule No. 1: “Learn how to hold a camera.” Writes Miller: “Please, for the love of God, hold the phone horizontally so your videos come out horizontally. While it may be easier to hold the camera in the vertical position, you end up with a video that uses only a third of the available screen sandwiched by two black lines.” CopWatch—which has adopted some of Miller’s tips in its own guidebook—is designed to subtly encourage witnesses to turn the phone to landscape mode by orienting the text on the screen horizontally instead of vertically. Baptiste couldn’t help but notice that the South Carolina footage “begins in portrait as this tiny sliver of video” before Santana turns the phone to landscape to access a wider shot.

Miller’s second rule is “Keep your mouth shut.” We’ve “all seen videos of cops violently arresting somebody,” Miller writes, “only for the person holding the camera to be shrieking hysterically that they’re pigs or that they’re going to end up on YouTube or that the person they’re arresting didn’t do anything illegal. Keep in mind that your mouth is closer to the microphone than anybody else’s mouth, so your voice is going to be magnified as it drowns out the relevant audio that needs to be captured.” In order to encourage viral pick-up, Miller advises amateur videographers to keep their videos to three minutes, five at most, because “people on the internet don’t have time to sit through a ten minute video.” And one last thing: “Please, no matter how cool you think it may sound, do not add music to the video.”

The nonprofit Witness, which trains citizens around the world to film human rights abuses in their own backyards, also focuses on quality control. As the New York Times Magazine reported in February, Witness has found that most videos of traumatic events filmed by untrained bystanders end up being “shaky to the point of ambiguity” or else “lacking in metadata that would have helped confirm their veracity.” So Kelly Matheson, who heads up Witness’ Video as Evidence program, shells out advice for creating a better piece of evidence. Amateur videographers should capture tight shots that clearly show the action, but also remember to pan the camera to “document as much of your surroundings as possible” and record “geographic landmarks that can’t be faked” in order to situate the event in a specific place and time, the Times reports. It’s particularly important, Witness says, to resist an activist bent when shooting these videos. The best evidence contains not just obvious acts of cruelty but also mundane shots of “license-plate numbers, military-uniform patterns,” and “close-ups of official documentation” too. And the ACLU’s Stanley offers this advice: Start filming the interaction as early as possible, and keep the camera running as long as you can, to help defend against criticism that the footage has been taken out of context.

But for Baptiste, there’s no such thing as “the best” video of a cop killing a man. I asked Baptiste how it felt—as a person who actively encourages his fellow citizens to film the actions of the police—to watch the video of Walter Scott being gunned down. “A man died in the frame,” Baptiste told me. “I don’t enjoy watching that.” When he releases a new version of CopWatch later this month, it will come with a new feature: A field to note whether a new upload is just a test, so Baptiste knows to prepare himself for the footage he’s about to see.