Police forces have embraced body cams in recent years, and black people in particular took to documenting their encounters with the law. This felt like progress. Finally, many of us thought, America would see reality. Video would be a vehicle for justice.
We were wrong.
We are awash in video of police thumping jaywalkers into submission, pepper-spraying and punching developmentally delayed 13-year-olds, hurling down teenage partygoers, bodyslamming 11-year-olds. In each case, the victim is black.
And then there are the killings. There was the officer who chased Walter Scott, but couldn’t catch him. So he shot him dead. There was the seatbelted Philando Castile reaching for his ID, his girlfriend and her daughter in the car with him, when an officer opened fire.
There was the cop who placed Eric Garner in a choke hold and ignored him as he repeatedly shouted, “I can’t breathe.” (This is a theme.) There was Tamir Rice, slain by police as he played with a pellet gun. He was 12 years old.
And that is a sampling. It does not include the stomach-churning footage of Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. A Minneapolis police officer, enabled by three colleagues, kneeled on the neck of an increasingly desperate Floyd for 8 minutes, 46 seconds.
All four now face criminal charges. But if their cases get to trial, will the video matter to jurors?
Because when we watch, we bring our fears and biases, our complicated histories. In the case of many white Americans, including prosecutors and jurors, this means the police are always right. In 2018, the New York Times found that of 15 high-profile cases from 2014 to 2016 involving police killing black people, only three ended in convictions. And in nearly half the cases, officers faced no charges.
The group Mapping Police Violence reports that law enforcement killed 6,800 civilians between 2013 and 2018. Officers were charged in only 1.7 percent of these cases.
There may be a few reasons for this.
For many white Americans, police officers get the benefit of the doubt, with or without video, because they shield us from ever-looming chaos. This is a myth, fed by certain politicians. Pants-on-fire rhetoric aside, violent crime stands at a 25-year low.
There is also the impossible standard to which whites hold black Americans. In many recent incidents that have captured national attention, law enforcement’s response has been fatally disproportionate. Black people have died for, among other things, buying cigarettes with an allegedly fake $20 bill, stopping at a construction site for a few minutes, shoplifting a box of cigars, selling cigarettes on the sidewalk, driving with a blown tail light, changing lanes without signaling.
Whites who watch these videos don’t see overreaction. They see officers doing their job. Black people rightly see evidence of poor training, ignorance, and racism. And they take to the streets.
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Even sympathetic whites are often loath to see deeper meaning in these tragedies. This is another problem with video. There is no context. Film lends itself to dramatic storytelling, but it does not provide the big picture. Whites watch a video of police brutality and chalk it up to anecdote. A moment in time. This is not happening every day, they say. This cannot be reality.
Video doesn’t always inflame. Sometimes, it numbs. This potentially afflicts us all. Some African-American activists even urge black people to be careful how much they watch and share video of police killings. They worry that what should be a sobering experience can morph into unconscious Peeping Tomism. That consuming a video can too easily replace acting with clarity and purpose.
I appreciate the concern of black activists, but I think of the hidden victims of police misconduct, many of whom appear in these videos. They are neighbors and friends and parents and spouses and children.
For loved ones, a financial settlement may await, but those are often confidential. The video is the closest they may get to real justice.
Consider Diamond Reynolds, who possessed a preternatural calm as she livestreamed on Facebook the slaying of her boyfriend Philando Castile in July 2016 near St. Paul, Minnesota. Afterward, police handcuffed Reynolds and placed her and her young daughter in a patrol car.
Still livestreaming, Reynolds pleaded with viewers to pray. She cried. She screamed. Her daughter hugged and comforted her.
“I could keep you safe,” the little girl said.
The next morning, Reynolds explained her decision to livestream: “I didn’t do it for pity. I didn’t do it for fame. I did it so the world knows that these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black.”
In short, Reynolds was documenting truth. She wanted a record of what happened that day because she did not trust our justice system. And she was right: At trial, the officer who killed Castile was acquitted of all charges.
Stephen Buckley is a former managing editor of the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, and former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times.