Police misconduct has always been a serious problem in the United States, and the police typically receive the benefit of the doubt in the justice system. The claims that officers make are taken seriously, even if they don’t add up.
But in the era of camera phones and video sharing Web sites like YouTube, civil rights advocates are gaining ground. It is now easier to document crimes, including unlawful police activity, and to share the video clips with millions of viewers on the Internet.
Early on New Year’s Day, at a subway station in Oakland, California, a policeman shot Oscar Grant in the back. Grant, a young black man, wasn’t fleeing a crime scene. He wasn’t armed or behaving in a threatening way. Detained by Bay Area Rapid Transit police as a suspect in a train scuffle, Grant had been restrained face-down, with his arms behind him, when Officer Johannes Mehserle drew his service pistol and shot him once. Grant was taken to the hospital, where he died.
It was a remarkable incident of police brutality. Officer Mehserle resigned in the aftermath of the shooting, and the Alameda County district attorney’s office charged him with murder. But perhaps more remarkable than the incident—or even the murder charge—is the crucial piece of evidence that prosecutors will use to make their case: amateur video footage of the shooting, filmed by witnesses with camera phones.
In court, Mehserle won’t be able to assert that Grant was brandishing a weapon, or that he had taken a hostage, or any of the other lies that might otherwise accompany a fatal police shooting. Instead, Mehserle will have to explain why, as the judge and jury will plainly see, he shot a restrained man in the back.
The influence of video evidence is enormous. Watching a police officer behave like a violent criminal is unsettling — it has a more powerful effect than other forms of evidence. The amateur footage of Rodney King’s beating by police infuriated the black community in Los Angeles, and helped lead to the rioting that erupted after the officers’ acquittal in April 1992.
In the week following Grant’s shooting, the camera phone footage aired on a local television channel, KTVU, and was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times from the channel’s Web site. The managing editor of the site told the San Francisco Chronicle that the video had “taken on a life of its own,” becoming “one of those phenomenons of the Internet world.”
The video fueled anger among Oakland residents, and protests in the city on January 7 devolved into riots. More than a hundred people were arrested after angry protestors smashed up cars and businesses.
Of course, most people will never witness a fatal police shooting, let alone film it. But amateur videos documenting other cases of police misconduct demonstrate the powerful effect of “citizen journalism.”
Last summer in New York City, at a Critical Mass bike ride in Times Square, rookie cop Patrick Pogan shoved a cyclist to the ground and arrested him, charging him with attempted assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
The incident was videotaped and uploaded to YouTube, where it has been viewed more than two million times, prompting coverage from the New York Times, the New York Post, the Daily News, the Associated Press, and CNN.
The police report about the incident, available online at The Smoking Gun, is farcical. Officer Pogan wrote that the cyclist, Christopher Long, knocked him to the ground: “the defendant [Long] steered the defendant’s bicycle in the direction of deponent [Pogan] and drove defendant’s bicycle directly into deponent’s body, causing deponent to fall to the ground and causing deponent to suffer lacerations on deponent’s forearms.”
The assertion is patently false. The footage clearly shows Pogan tackling Long and slamming him into the pavement, while witnesses on the street shout in surprise.
Pogan claimed that Long was cycling recklessly, “forcing multiple vehicles to stop abruptly or change their direction in order to avoid hitting the defendant.” In fact, there were no motor vehicles heading in any direction, just cyclists riding in the same direction. Pogan said Long swerved his bike toward him; the video shows that he swerved away from him.
As Long was being arrested, he told Officer Pogan, “You’re assaulting me. I’m gonna have your badge.” Thanks to the impact of the video clip, he was right. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Long, and Pogan was indicted for assault and filing a false report. He later quit the police department.
But as one Critical Mass cyclist told the New York Post, “If it wasn’t caught on video, people would not have believed it.”
Of course, there are risks involved in filming the police. Last month, a Roman Catholic priest, James Manship, was arrested in a convenience store in East Haven, Connecticut, after he videotaped officers who were harassing the shop’s Hispanic employees. The police report, published online by the New Haven Independent, suggests that cops subdued a dangerous man who silently crept up on them with a weapon, making Officer David Cari feel “unsafe”:
“This officer saw Manship withdraw an unknown shiny silver object out of his coat pocket and had cuffed [sic] the object with his hands in order to conceal the item from police…Manship stopped a short distance from this officer’s position behind a store shelf and had fully extended his arms forward and pointed his hands towards this officer while his hands were still cupped over a silver object…Not knowing if Manship was holding a camera or a possible weapon this officer asked Manship to show me what was in his hands. Manship did not answer this officer…”
These are serious charges. But Manship’s video footage, available online, shows what actually happened. Immediately upon noticing that Manship is filming him, Officer Cari asks, “Is there a reason why you have a camera on me?” Manship replies, “Yes.” Cari asks, “Why’s that?” Manship says, “I’m taking a video of what’s going on here.” Cari storms over, saying, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do with that camera,” and snatches the device away, ending the recording.
The police report claims that Manship then “bladed his body in a [sic] aggressive manner,” repeatedly shouting, “I’m a priest and you cannot touch me.” Cari writes that Manship then “started to fight” with the police and “struggled” as he was arrested. The co-owner of the store, who witnessed the arrest, said that Father Manship submitted peacefully, without a word.
Although the shop in question has security cameras, the police arrested Manship outside their range, perhaps intentionally.
But when officers don’t know they are being filmed, as in a recent case in New York City, they behave very differently.
The NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau and the Manhattan district attorney’s office are currently investigating two officers in the rape of an intoxicated woman last December in the East Village neighborhood.
Unbeknownst to the cops, the security camera in a local bar recorded them as they escorted the woman—who was extremely drunk and had been vomiting in a taxi—into her apartment building nearby. The video shows the officers leaving the building seven minutes after entering. So far, so good—police apparently helping a vulnerable person get home safely.
But, as the video shows, the officers returned to her building twice that night, in one instance using the woman’s keys to get inside, and attempted to hide from the view of the building’s cameras as they snuck in and out.
During their second visit, police remained inside her apartment for 17 minutes; during their third and final visit, 34 minutes.
One of the cops, Franklin Mata, recently confessed to investigators that his partner, Kenneth Moreno, raped the woman while Mata stood by.
Anonymous police sources told the New York Post that witness statements and video evidence prove the woman was “falling-down drunk” and could not have consented to sex.
Hours after the officers left her apartment, the victim awoke “in pain and with signs of trauma,” and was hospitalized, the Post reported.
“I’ve been raped,” the woman told her friends. “It was the police.” According to the New York Times, her friends contacted the bar’s owner, who gave the video footage to the district attorney’s office.
Investigators searching Officer Moreno’s locker after the incident found a packet of heroin hidden in a cigarette box and a list of nearly a dozen women’s names and addresses.
Neither officer has been arrested; both have been put on desk duty while the investigation continues. But if the case makes it into court, the officers will have a hard time explaining what they were doing for almost an hour in the apartment of an inebriated woman who was hospitalized hours later after being raped.
And their attorneys will have to scour the NYPD Patrol Guide to find anything authorizing officers to confiscate the keys of an intoxicated person in order to facilitate breaking and entering and sexual assault.
Surveillance has traditionally been a tool of the powerful, not the powerless. As these examples demonstrate, that is changing.
After it was revealed that police spied on non-violent protest groups in the lead-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, city council member Charles Barron called for the resignation of police commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Barron said, “If [Kelly] wants to put somebody under surveillance around violence, he should do that to his police officers, who are out of control.”
It’s a good idea, and should be enacted in police departments nationwide. But citizens have already figured out how to do so on their own.
KEITH NEWELL is an intern at The Nation. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org