In the past year, police and surveillance cameras and ordinary smartphones have captured what seems to be an endless parade of police brutality cases. While the recordings have certainly raised questions of racism and police aggression, they also demonstrate a point in time when cameras and its technology have become increasingly reliable and provide immediate transparency to how police behave. How quickly the videos went viral speaks to the strength of social conversations.
In April, a police car dashboard camera recorded what seemed to be a routine traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina, when police officer Michael Slager pulled over Walter Scott for a broken headlight. After initial questioning, Scott got out of his car and ran away from his vehicle. A bystander captured the rest of the story with his smart camera. His footage shows an unarmed Scott running away from Slager and then the officer shooting him in the back. Slager was later fired and a grand jury charged him with murder. If convicted, he faces 30 years to life.
In June, multiple eyewitnesses pulled out their smartphones to record police officer David Casebolt, cursing at teenagers at a pool party, upholstering and waving his gun and then forcing a 14-year-old girl dressed only in her swimsuit, to the ground in McKinney, Texas. Casebolt later resigned from the McKinney Police Department after the footage went viral.
Unfortunately, there are so many more examples such as the death of Eric Garner in New York, who was placed in a chokehold by a police officer, and the deadly shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. A smartphone and a surveillance camera caught both incidences.
Not too long ago, the technology for cameras was not sophisticated enough or too expensive for police officers to wear routinely. Dashboard video recorders were too bulky. The quality of recordings was also shaky and difficult to see. The same could be said for most everyday cameras. Not all of us carry a point and click camera whenever we go. But most of us carry a smartphone with a camera, which we pull out if we see something that catches our eyes and upload to social media for immediate conversation.
Cameras now give us a clearer view of what police do – good, bad or plain unconscionable. They make the encounters more transparent than ever. Now, police departments are asking that body mounted cameras be part of regularly issued police equipment.
People watched the viral videos and then they talked about them. The police and smartphone recordings brought home the fact that there are indeed police actions and behaviors that are unconscionable. While the cases would have been newsworthy on their own, the videos elevated them, making them headlines and topics for Facebook posts, Tweets and old fashion conversations. Technology has made these videos credible and incredible eyewitnesses and part of a national dialogue.