Another man was dead, another man who could not challenge the police report on how he died. The official report in this case said North Charleston, S.C. Police Officer Michael T. Slager shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, after Scott attempted to take the officer’s Taser and use it on him.
But a bystander’s video captured the deeply disturbing incident and showed that report to be a blatant fabrication. The whole world has now seen Slager firing eight times at Scott’s back after he began running away. Slager has been charged with murder, but his false story would have gone unchallenged had it not been for the video.
Video images have clearly become a powerful tool in documenting encounters between the public and police. The ACLU of California wants to make it more likely that even more individuals will use their phones to record those incidents, enabling the public to hold officers accountable when they cross the line.
That’s why the ACLU of California is proud to announce the release of Mobile Justice CA, a new smartphone app that allows users to effectively record law enforcement officers. Once the phone stops recording, the app quickly uploads a copy of the video to the local ACLU office. So it doesn’t matter what the officer or anyone does with the phone or to the recording on the phone because the video will already have been transmitted.
The ACLU wants law enforcement to know that the whole world could be watching, just as it was at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Demonstrators there repeatedly chanted, “The whole world is watching,” as Chicago police brutally broke up their protest. The whole world could watch because there was video of police beating demonstrators with clubs and spraying them with gas.
Chicago became the moment when that chant was seared into the national consciousness. Since then it has become a rallying cry for demonstrators, including those protesting growing economic inequality at Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Students at the University of California at Davis, demonstrating in support of the Occupy movement, also took up the chant as police wantonly pepper sprayed a line of seated, peaceful demonstrators.
The chant is intended to shame and change those who would abuse their power with the threat that their actions will be exposed and judged. Of course, this isn’t always true. Though millions watched the scenes from outside the convention hall on television, Chicago police escaped any consequences for what has been called a “police riot.” But those television images left an indelible imprint on those who saw the footage.
The world has changed a lot since then. The pool of available images has been expanded exponentially beyond what television cameras capture to those recorded on cell phones and disseminated immediately and vividly on social media. The video of the UC Davis pepper spraying quickly went viral and sparked criticism and outrage around the globe. Thanks to the video, the University of California paid out nearly $1 million in damages to the students who were sprayed, and the officer lost his job.
Mobile Justice CA comes at a time when the public is demanding increased transparency and accountability. But law enforcement has been slow to respond. While transparency and accountability are not guaranteed, some departments have begun to equip their officers with body cameras. This reform promises to bring greater clarity to controversial encounters that often end with the only person who can dispute officers’ accounts dead.
But body cameras are only one tool, and some departments seem intent on using them in ways that don’t further accountability and transparency. Los Angeles police officers wearing body cameras were among those who fatally shot a man on skid row in March. The department has refused to release the video, saying it will release it only when it is part of a criminal or civil case. Some police groups have recommended legislation that would exempt all police body camera footage from public records requests — even footage of police shootings.
Likewise, departments that give officers wide discretion to decide when to record or fail to provide sanctions for not using the cameras frustrate the cameras’ purpose. Last year an Albuquerque, N.M. police officer shot Mary Hawkes, an unarmed 19 year old, in the back and killed her. Though equipped with a body camera, the officer didn’t turn his camera on and record the shooting. He was later disciplined for failing to use his camera, but only after he had failed to turn it on five different times.
The ACLU’s Mobile Justice CA app puts the power to ensure transparency in the hands of the people. With so many people carrying cell phones with cameras, the whole world could be watching with just a touch of the phone’s screen.
And that simple touch could be what makes the difference in holding law enforcement accountable. Police body cams may prove to be effective tools in curbing police abuse. But bystanders’ cameras can be more powerful. Those images are not subject to police control, and like the Scott shooting, the footage they capture is immediately available for the whole world to see.
Villagra is executive director at the ACLU of Southern California. Follow OHectorV