Op-Ed

Pro/Con: Should we rely on crime videos?

This still image taken from video by Diamond Reynolds shows a police officer pointing a gun at her boyfriend, Philando Castile, during a traffic stop on July 6, in Falcon Heights, Minn. Castile died after the officer shot him several times.
This still image taken from video by Diamond Reynolds shows a police officer pointing a gun at her boyfriend, Philando Castile, during a traffic stop on July 6, in Falcon Heights, Minn. Castile died after the officer shot him several times. Associated Press

Good tools for evidence, justice

In the understandably volatile aftermath of the killings in Baton Rouge, La., Falcon Heights, Minn., and Dallas, the role of citizen-recorded videos has been at the forefront of debates over police tactics. On one hand, civil rights activists know the videos simply make “viral” a level of brutal misconduct that has existed for a long time. On the other, skeptics say the videos are evidence of a piecemeal and potentially misleading nature.

Both perspectives are valid and both are convincing reasons why citizen videos promote justice in potent and irreplaceable ways. First, from a legal perspective, the very nature of evidence is piecemeal and contextual; its value is to present or lead to proof that can establish material facts at trial.

Also, the media’s dissemination of citizen videos has raised the awareness of millions of people about the everyday experiences of people of color, particularly African-American and Latino men, with respect to interactions with police. Even conservatives like Newt Gingrich have finally publicly acknowledged that the criminal justice system is infected with racism and that mass incarceration has become a crisis.

Videos have helped the broader public to see the truth in long-standing empirical studies and anecdotes about racial profiling and police misconduct: that being black or brown absolutely matters in terms of one’s chances in the criminal justice system, from traffic stop to trial to prison.

Finally, the most important value of citizen videos in promoting justice is that it’s a technique we all can use, if we are so inclined. Anyone with a cellphone camera has the power and the right to record police interactions in public as long as the recording is not physically obstructive.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Mobile Justice and Stop and Frisk apps, among others, are freely available. They enable witnesses to submit videos of troubling law-enforcement actions while also alerting other nearby users to the incident. The apps thus promote transparency, which is at the heart of the legitimacy of police accountability in our country.

Margaret M. Russell, professor of constitutional law at Santa Clara University

No context, open to tampering

Don’t rush to condemn the cops the next time you see a citizen-recorded video of a police shooting. You may not be getting the entire story, and the clip will likely have been distributed to fan the hatred of police. Over the past decade, social media and television news outlets have been saturated by videos of police shootings, which of course horrify viewers. But sometimes what you see is not all of what happened — and sometimes it’s been doctored.

It’s important to understand these kinds of videos engage people in an immediate, emotional way, Pamela Rutledge, the director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, told CBS News earlier this month.

“We also have to remember that media, live streaming, et cetera, are curated by even as simple a thing as when you turned on the recorder and where you pointed the camera,” Rutledge told the news outlet in an email. “They don’t (and can’t) show full context; they show a selective point of view.” Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former assistant district attorney in New York City, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year that such videos often don’t show the full scope of events.

“Knowing what happens on video after it happens is totally different than knowing what the cop was thinking and what he will say he was thinking,” O'Donnell told the Times. “The video obviously could be damning in terms of a criminal case, but the ultimate question is, is there malice toward the kid? Is it totally unwarranted under any view of the evidence? The video does not speak for itself.”

For example soon after the city of Chicago released an audio-free dashcam video of a white officer fatally shooting a black teen 16 times, a 35-second excerpt with sound appeared online, garnering nearly a half million views on social media, according to the Associated Press. The problem? A veteran audio forensics expert told the AP the audio had been edited in. “It’s fake,” he said. “Hands down.”

These situations illustrate that the existence of a video is not full proof police have acted wrongly. In many cases, they are a good start in cases that surely should be investigated. However, a good start is all they are sometimes. These videos should be authenticated and their context ought to be established. Witnesses should be interviewed thoroughly and the cops involved ought to be questioned.

If police have acted wrongly, they should be punished, but not solely on the basis of one cellphone recording. On balance, these videos arguably can hurt the promotion of justice more than help it.

Whitt Flora is an independent journalist based in Maryland

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