For years, “The suspect reached for my gun” and “I feared for my life” were the only two sentences cops needed to write down in a police report to clear themselves of any wrongdoing after using deadly force. And, of course, most people, except the marginalized communities those cops abused and intimidated, believed them without question.
Then came phones that allowed people to capture video proving that cops aren’t as trustworthy as many non-people of color think they are.
On April 12, when six Baltimore police officer arrested 25-year-old Freddie Gray, his friend, Kevin Moore, pulled out his phone and began capturing video of the young man being pulled to a van as he screamed in pain. After Gray died a week later, thousands of Baltimorians filled the streets of the mid-Atlantic city demanding that the officers be held accountable.
They were charged a week later.
Earlier that month, in North Charleston, S.C., Feidin Santana was walking to work when he saw Officer Michael Slager Tasering 50-year-old Walter Scott on the ground after a traffic stop. By time Santana pulled out his phone and began recording the incident, the world was able to see Slager aiming his handgun at Scott as he ran away, firing at least eight rounds at the man and killing him. Slager said Scott reached for his Taser in his police report, a detail neither the video shows nor Santana saw.
The officer was fired and is charged with first degree murder.
5 Rules For Recording The Police
“I recorded the video so that maybe he would feel that someone was there,” Santana told Today show in an interview in April. “It was just the three of us in that moment. I couldn’t tell what was going to happen, so I wanted him to know he wasn’t by himself.”
For Black people daring to challenge police brutality, vigilant witnesses and their cellphones may be victims’ only hope to contest the narrative of a police report that likely won’t be written in their favor. Had it not been for cellphone video, Eric Sanders, a civil rights lawyer and former NYPD officer, believes Slager’s report likely would have gone unchallenged and no charges would have been brought against the officer.
“People in society, even journalists, are trained to go with the official account,” Sanders, who represents the family of Miriam Carey, told Diaspora Wire. “Many people don’t understand that the official account is what it is: the official account. It doesn’t mean it’s the truth. If witnesses are saying something different, you really should investigate those points of view.”
Janet Johnson, a Florida-based civil rights lawyer, says that when it comes to a cop’s version of events versus that of the person they are accused of abusing, the cop will always prevail.
“It’s almost impossible without video,” Johnson told Diaspora Wire. “My clients are in contact with the police generally because they’re alleged to be committing crimes. Their credibility is always considered less than the police account.”
Sanders added that it’s incredibly difficult to convince people that an officer is lying because so many Americans believe in law enforcement—well, at least white Americans do. According to a NBC/Marist College poll conducted in December, 52 percent of white Americans expressed more faith than ever that cops treat black residents in their communities with the same respect as white ones. Just 12 percent of black people polled shared that same confidence.
Of course, there’s a reason for that. At least twenty studies published over the past 15 years clearly prove that police officers have racial biases towards black people. Police officers have also been caught lying on people they arrest, usually minority defendants. In 2011, hundreds of drug cases in New York City were dismissed after several narcotics cops were caught planting evidence and other acts of misconduct.
Radley Balko wrote a detailed historical account for the Washington Post about how and why cops engage in “testilyng,” which is the act of officers lying in court against people they arrest.
Given that police officers are known to lie, it makes sense for people to keep their phones fully charged in case they’ll have to use much of its power recording an incident of abuse that may be used to prosecute a cop with a crime. The ACLU has created several recording apps available in certain locations around the country that syncs video of alleged police abuse and automatically stores it in a local branch database. Though the organization says most of the submitted videos haven’t captured any major acts of abuse yet, Eric Guster, a civil rights attorney based in Birmingham, Ala., told Diaspora Wire that it’s important for people to continue recording anyway.
“We have seen cases where police officers have seized cell phone video and destroyed it if it was against their best interest, Guster said. “It is only a matter of time that the ACLU will have a video that will have a major impact on a huge case. I advise people to always hit the record button when they are dealing with any type of police interaction and when they see any type of interaction with police of other people because the video could change the scope of a case”
Watch Video Of ACLU California’s New Police Recording App
As powerful as cellphone footage can be, it doesn’t mean it will lead to a prosecution. When Ramsey Orta pulled out his phone to record NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo placing Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold on a street corner in Staten Island in July of 2014, many were cautiously hopeful that the video would be enough to convince the local prosecutor to criminally charge the officer. It wasn’t. In December, the local district attorney decided not to press charges against Pantaleo, setting off a new wave of national protests unseen since Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August. Video footage of Rodney King’s beating by LAPD officers, in 1991, didn’t lead to a conviction either. John Crawford’s death was captured on video and the officers were also cleared in that case.
Knowing the truth and actually acting on it are two different things, DeRay Mckesson, one of the Movement’s leading activists, told Diaspora Wire.
“I think that we’re exposing police violence moreso than proving it,” he said. “We’ve known the reality of police violence in communities for as long as America has existed. Cellphone footage has allows more people to see the depth of the crisis and that’s vital.”
Sanders said the fact that more people are pulling out their phones is a game changer that will put false police reports under more scrutiny than they’ve ever experienced.
“I’m sure when they developed these smartphones, they didn’t think they would be used in such a matter they’re being used now,” he said. “And everyone has one, from the poorest person to the richest person. That’s the great equalizer.”