The Limits of Filming Police Brutality

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S1: Hey, everyone, a quick note about today’s show, we’re talking about incidents of police brutality and some of the descriptions may be upsetting. You might want to wear headphones if you’re listening around children. According to an investigation by The Guardian, at least 258 black people were killed by police officers in 2016. Tragically, that was not an unusual development. But the widespread release of video footage of some of those encounters was on July 5th, 2016.

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S2: Alton Sterling was shot and killed while two bystanders took videos on their phones. The next day, July 6th, Flandreau Castile was shot and killed. His fiancee recorded the immediate aftermath of the shooting a week after the shootings in the wake of national protests. Ethan Zuckerman was trying to make sense of the killings. He wrote an article in the MIT Technology Review called Why We Must Continue to Turn the Camera on Police.

S3: My hope was that the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and the ease with which people could turn cameras on authorities might be a turning point in the relationship between police and people of color.

S1: For the last nine years, Ethan has been a professor at the MIT Media Lab. He studies media, technology and activism. How did you think that might change the equation? Because this is a technology that’s been around for a very long time.

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S3: Sure, it’s been possible to film things on a video camera going back quite a ways. And in fact, if we go back to the Rodney King beatings, we know about that because it was videotaped by someone who had a big, bulky VHS camera. The thought that cameras being ubiquitous in everyone’s hands and beyond that, the fact that it’s very, very easy for anyone to publish video these days, all of this felt like something that should end up changing these underlying power dynamics and make it clear to police officers that they were being watched and there might be consequences for their behavior.

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S1: In other words, in 2016, Ethan was feeling optimistic about the potential for technology to effect real change. He knew that video footage from witnesses didn’t always lead to consequences for officers. He knew the issue of police brutality was complex. But here at the intersection of smartphones and social media, he felt hopeful.

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S4: Then add to that in the wake of Michael Brown shooting and Eric Garner, the widespread adoption of body cameras by police departments. And again, one might hope that that possibility of being seen on camera would have turned the fact as far as use of force by the police for years have passed since Ethan wrote that MIT Technology Review article.

S1: Since then, Stefan Clark was shot seven times and killed in Sacramento. Briona Taylor was shot eight times and killed in her Louisville apartment. George Floyd died in Minneapolis after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

S2: The technology driven changes to the power dynamic between police and citizens, but Ethan hoped to see have not come to pass. And now Ethan says he’s changed his mind. Today on the show, when video isn’t enough, people risk their safety to film the police isn’t making enough of a difference. I’m Celeste Headlee, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

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S1: This summer, Ethan wrote a new article in it, he looked back on the optimism he felt in 2016, his faith that cameras and social media could reform the relationship between communities and the police tasked with protecting them. But now, he says increasing awareness through video is not enough. He says, I was wrong. It appears that it was George Floyds. Killing that may have led you to change your mind and you describe watching that video and being struck by the police officers face as he looked at himself being filmed. Can you tell me what it was you saw that struck you?

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S4: He makes eye contact with someone who is Felmingham, and he doesn’t even attempt to say, put the camera away. He isn’t embarrassed about what he’s doing. That is the image of someone who is looking at someone filming them and felt like there would not be consequences for his actions.

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S1: I wanted to read back something you wrote in your piece. You said, the hope that pervasive cameras by themselves would counterbalance the systemic racism that leads to the overpolicing of communities of color and the disproportionate use of force against black men was simply a techno utopian fantasy.

S4: I think we often look for technological shortcuts to deep societal problems, systemic racism, overpolicing, fear of black men in particular.

S3: These are giant, thorny, difficult problems.

S4: And I think I and many people hoped that police body cameras in particular, but also mobile phone cameras would tilt the playing field. For me, the most disturbing and maybe dispiriting piece of this was the fact that we’re starting to see very good, peer reviewed, large scale studies that suggest that police worn body cameras don’t have any measurable effect on use of force on police misconduct complaints. And that seems really surprising. For whatever reason. This is not shaping police behavior. And I think the answer is that police officers know consciously or unconsciously that there are a set of protections that are going to allow them, in most cases, to use extreme force and and not suffer consequences for it. I think that overrides whatever psychological effects we might have from that sense of being watched.

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S1: And yet it was that video that led to what are now possibly the largest protests in American history. Is that not proof that the video works?

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S4: Unfortunately, no, and I have bad news on that front, my lab at MIT Center for Social Media did a very large study of media coverage of police violence affecting unarmed people of color. So we looked at over 300 instances of unarmed people of color who were killed in encounters with police between 2013 and 2016. What we were able to show was that there was a huge wave of media attention to these stories for about 12 to 18 months after the death of Michael Brown before Mike Brown. These were almost always reported as an isolated incident. After Mike Brown, we were 11 times more likely to link these stories into a larger pattern of systemic police abuse and violence. So for that brief period of time, for about 12 to 18 months, we paid much better attention to these stories. And we told these stories in a different way. We told them as part of a larger pattern. But by the end of our study, media attention was back down to where it had been before. My prediction is that we will see some sort of six, 12, 18 month window of attention to stories like that of George Floyd. But unless something else, substantial changes, I would predict that that wave of attention will fade away in much the same way that wave of attention around Michael Brown faded away.

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S1: So in light of that, let me continue reading from where I read before in your piece, you say that techno utopian fantasy you spoke about was a hope that police violence could be an information problem like Uber rides or Amazon recommendations solvable by increasing the flows of data. But after years of increasingly widespread bodycam use an even more pervasive social media, it’s clear that information can work only when it’s harnessed to power. What what do you mean here? How do you harness information to power?

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S5: The hope for change coming out of George Floyds murder is that this is a moment where communities really go after the structure of police departments and the structure of oversight associated with them. Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed, is one of the best examples of this. That was a police department that had incredible influence within local government and was functioning almost as its own revenue generating and tax generating force. That was a police force that structurally had grown out of control. And one of the things that we have to realize is that we can use things like video and imagery to call attention to this. But unless we harness that to changing those broken institutions, we’re going to find ourselves back at step one again.

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S6: So at this point, do you advocate for people filming the police or is that a waste of time?

S5: No, I absolutely advocate for people filming the police. What I also advocate for is not just filming the police.

S1: This issue of putting a faith in technology alone, the idea that better technology is going to solve humanity’s problems, it’s so old, it is centuries old, it was the subject of science fiction going back pretty much as far as science fiction goes. Why do we keep doing this?

S5: We keep doing it because sometimes it does work. I just got out from lecturing in a friend’s class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and UMass is not meeting face to face because of the pandemic, but over the course of a couple of weeks, everyone has switched over to Zoom. And we held a perfectly rational and engaged class discussion with one hundred and twenty people who were logging on from their bedrooms or their living rooms. And if you think about it, that’s kind of a miracle, right? We took a system that worked one way and it works pretty darn well another way thanks to the intervention of the technology. The trick is that all of our motives and incentives are aligned. The students still want to learn, the professors still want to teach. Their university still want to run. And therefore, we’re all on the same side when we try to move from the classroom onto Zun. What’s harder is in a case like this, where the incentives aren’t aligned, citizens who are filming police violence, police who are being film police departments, local governments all have different views of the situation, different agendas associated with it. It’s harder for technology to have that real transformative change because what it’s now running into is a political problem.

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S1: There are ways that tech software developers and and tech companies have tried to respond and and make it easier. There are apps that will send your videos directly to the ACLU, for example. There are apps, I think there’s one called I’m getting arrested. There’s that that notifies contacts. If you end up getting arrested, there’s all kinds of things out there that try to make this easier for protesters or activist or even just regular citizens. And I wonder what you think the tech industry could be doing at this point to help.

S5: So it makes perfect sense to me that software developers would look at a serious problem, like the violations against black and brown people at the hands of the police and say, maybe I can do something, maybe I can build something that will transform all of this. It just turns out that most problems are not technical problems. There’s socio technical problems. I think techno optimism is actually a good thing. I think we want technologists trying to figure out how to tackle these big social problems. I think naive techno optimism is the problem. And I think what we need are people who do a better job of understanding that the technology is only part of a layered problem.

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S7: Personally, I’d never believed in the techno utopian thing because, like, I never I don’t think I ever really believed that technology alone could hold power to account because like that that is that’s never made sense to me.

S1: Bijan Stephen is a reporter at The Verge. This week, he and his colleagues published a project called Capturing the Police. It explores the role of technology in the relationship between citizens and the police. I read in the excerpt from Ethan’s recent article that describes his views four years ago as a techno utopian fantasy.

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S7: To me, the idea of filming the police and making this stuff very public is to make it inexcusable and indefensible. This is the hope, right? At some point, the tides will shift and people will recognize this for the inexcusable and inescapable problem that it is like the fact that all over the country this is happening in the same way is very important. And I think the biggest thing about this movement is like now you can’t really pretend like there isn’t a problem. And to think that the police are going to help everybody 100 percent of the time. And I think that is the main purpose. If you almost of a piece with with strategic nonviolence. Right. A lot of the strategy was putting these indefensible acts on TV so other people could see them and witness them as part of his project for The Verge, Bijan edited a series of interviews with people who filmed police violence.

S1: He wanted the perspective of the people behind the camera and to learn how their lives were affected when their videos went viral. I want to talk about the one video that was of Officer Nathaniel Brown, interestingly enough, the young man who began recording. I mean, I still remember him saying in the video that you guys produced, this is not the kind of video you want to go viral for. What happened with offers in the final brown in these young men?

S7: I mean, it was to put it in sort of the bleakest terms. It was routine. The only thing that was different was Isaiah Benevides had had a camera.

S1: So they’re driving there at a barbecue. The people at the barbecue want more beer for the party. They drive to the corner store to get more beer. And the the young man in front gets pulled over. And behind him, Isaiah decides to start filming because he’s afraid something will happen to his friend.

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S8: Oh, no, no, no, no. Nothing like for nothing you can do. No wrong. Nothing. He’s injured.

S1: How often is fear for someone’s life a motivator for filming the police?

S7: A lot of the time, because we’ve seen how often this stuff goes bad.

S1: Two of his friends were arrested for cursing during the traffic stop and one officer threatened to break Isaiah’s phone if he didn’t back away. Don’t get back and report your shit. I’m Isaiah posted the video online and it quickly went viral. But he didn’t stop there. He and his friends began protesting outside of the police department. They started a fundraiser for legal fees and a petition asking the department to fire the officer in the clip. A few weeks later, Officer Nathaniel Brown was relieved of duty. Isaiah had never filmed a police officer before that incident. Your reporting seems to reveal an unexpected reaction by many police officers when they realize they’re being filmed. One of the experts that you interviewed said that law enforcement sometimes sees the introduction of cameras as a threat and that alone filming can escalate.

S7: Yes, I think I do think that’s true. I mean, I think part of it is like because somebody else recording means implies a loss of control on the officer’s part, like they don’t get to control the narrative of what happened, which is usually the case. Like that’s that’s that’s the other thing that should be underscored here. You know, a police report is generally taken as this is what happened and having an alternative record sort of challenges that authority.

S1: OK, so the project is is meant to cover how people use tech to bring awareness of police brutality and what it costs them. What do you think?

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S7: The bottom line is part of the reason that a lot of this stuff has gone unseen and unpunished for so long is because nobody, nobody believed it was happening necessarily like the wider public didn’t believe the police could behave in such brutal ways. And now it’s it’s you cannot deny it.

S9: Like now it’s you literally have to stick your head in the sand or, I don’t know, go somewhere without wi fi to to to ignore these stream of videos, the stream of accounts, stream of like people testifying to their own experience. I think I think that’s the very important part.

S2: John, Stephen, thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. John Stephen is a reporter at The Verge, Ethan Zuckerman is a visiting scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

S10: That’s our show for today, TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. TBD as part of the larger What Next family, TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Celeste Headlee. Thank you so much for listening and have a great weekend. Monday is a holiday, so a new episode of What Next will be in your feed on Tuesday.