In the wake of the ever-growing number of videos surfacing which document the physical abuses suffered by persons of color at the hands of police officers, the role of video in documenting this type of violence has been a subject of debate.
Several commentators have written artfully about the threat of violence and death at the hands of law enforcement felt by persons of color in even the most day-to-day activities, arguing that video footage may capture injustice, but should not be considered an effective tool in preventing it. They argue that in the deaths of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, video footage documents the vulnerability that people of color experience at the hands of law enforcement, but can offer only an impotent rage. As if to prove this point, the video of Samuel DuBose’s killing by a University of Cincinnati police officer fills my computer screen this afternoon. But I feel compelled to address the efficacy of video footage in these circumstances, for two reasons.
First, the blanket suggestion that video evidence fails to keep people of color safe simply isn’t true. Video recordings can protect all people—and especially minorities—not only in the street but also in the courtroom.
People act differently when they know they are being observed, and police officers are no different. Studies have shown, for example, that police officers are less likely to resort to physical contact with suspects if they are wearing recorders. In one trial study, a police department in Rialto, California, reported that by outfitting only half their police officers with body cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers dropped by 88 percent. In addition, the incidence of use of force by police officers declined by nearly sixty percent. Quite simply, when police officers know they are being recorded they are less likely to use physical force.
But video also protects the public in general—and minorities in particular—against abusive police behavior after the fact. Video recordings not only discourage the improper use of physical force, but also deter insidious, hard-to-prove abuses such as racial profiling, fabricated charges, and other civil rights violations.
I know this because I have seen first-hand what video evidence can do to protect black (and, in fact, all) people from injustice at the hands of law enforcement. Working as a public defender in Reno, Nevada, I have come to know all too well that injustice isn’t limited to what occurs in the headlights of a police cruiser in Texas, or in the back of a transport vehicle in Baltimore. And here’s where video recording is invaluable.
Video evidence can bolster procedural defenses that are otherwise difficult to prove—such as a pretextual stop or an illegal search—and which would otherwise result in the dismissal of a case either by a prosecutor, or judge, or jury. A body camera, for example, would likely protect an innocent defendant from the easily-fabricated charges of Assaulting an Officer or Resisting Arrest (such as in the case of Sandra Bland). Absent video, charges like these come down to the officer’s word against the defendant’s—a situation that usually doesn’t bode well for the defendant.
Civil rights groups are already acknowledging the value of video evidence in curtailing police abuses in the field as well as in the courtroom. The ACLU, for example, has created an app that allows witnesses to record police encounters and to automatically send these videos to an ACLU representative.
The protection offered by video evidence may seem less tangible than the type of immediate physical violence that we see in Sandra Bland’s unlawful arrest or Samuel DuBose’s death. However, unlawful prosecution and incarceration based on race bias is a very real form of violence on the bodies and lives of its victims. The violence of unjust prosecution for a fabricated claim of assaulting an officer, for example, can be a trip to jail, or a prison sentence, or the lifelong, crippling brand of “felon.” These acts of violence are equally important to protect against. They are the acts of violence that might have been carried out against Sandra Bland away from the public eye, had she lived.
In this sense, two growing political movements are slowly converging in recent months: the movement against the use of violence against minorities by law enforcement, and the call for criminal justice reform to curtail mass incarceration. The movements are converging, not in street protests or in legislative debates, but rather, on the video screen. While each movement seems to involve independent actors and decry disparate abuses, they share common solutions to promote an unbiased criminal justice system, including the mandated use of video cameras to record police activity.
The second reason that I feel compelled to address the efficacy of video footage is because I believe that, in cases like those of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, outrage isn’t enough. Progress through concrete laws and policies such as the mandated use of body cameras, albeit imperfect, are measurable advancements against the injustices at the center of this debate.
Institutional injustice rarely changes by public opinion alone. Public outcry, even for issues as seemingly clear-cut as those at the center of this national discussion, most often just seem to fade away until the next injustice resurrects it. We’ve have similar discussions of racism and police brutality in this country a couple times a decade for the last fifty years, but little seems to have changed. Watts in 1965. Miami in 1980. Los Angeles in 1992. Oakland in 2009. Recently, the issue of violence against minority victims by police officers has been kept in the public conscience by an ever-increasing list of black victims such as Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Samuel DuBose—all, it should be noted, cases that were caught on video. But I worry about what tangible changes will have been accomplished when the issue fades from the spotlight, as seems inevitable.
I applaud the sentiment behind the growing movement against race bias and the use of violence against minorities by law enforcement. My hope is that it will provide a springboard for discussion about what the movement’s specific goals are. Like many people, I want to know what I can actually do—what groups I should be supporting, whether there is something more than posting one heartbreaking link after another to my Facebook page. When I am in the courtroom five years from now, I hope to see laws born from this movement in 2015 that protect the bodies of my minority clients, not just from the violence of a police baton or Tazer, but from the violence of the criminal justice system. Concrete solutions—such as the mandated use of body cameras by police officers—are exactly the tangible changes that I hope become the legacy of this movement.
Video cameras are, in the most concrete sense, tools of justice—even if they aren’t the perfect tool. They won’t bring back Samuel DuBose, and they won’t bring back Sandra Bland, and they won’t bring back Tamir Rice. But as an attorney who has worked against police abuses of all kinds, I can tell you that we need more tools like these to protect minority bodies not just from physical violence at the hands of the police, but from the hidden violence of prisons and parole officers and criminal records.
Gabriel Urza is the author of All That Followed. He holds an MFA from the Ohio State University as well as a degree in law from the University of Notre Dame, and he spent several years as a public defender in Reno, Nevada. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ithaca College.
Copyright 2015 Gabriel Urza