Cops, Cameras and Justice

This is “deeply troubling on many fronts.”

– South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham

I’m a photographer, and the police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, feels like a major watershed in the on-going struggle between cops and cameras. Like no other story, this one starkly shows the power of a camera in the hands of a courageous citizen at the right place and the right time. And the technology is getting more sophisticated, cheaper and smaller by the day.

Due to an official prejudice for police narratives, the case was headed to become another murky police shooting of a black man masticated in the media and criminal justice system into a free pass for police violence. A brave citizen with a cell phone camera changed that instantly. At that point the local police chief and the mayor of North Charleston agonized in public, as South Carolina politicians rushed to the cameras to show their disgust. A video image of the shamed officer wearing striped prison garb and handcuffs was publicly released to exhibit his fate.

Walter Scott was shot to death over a broken taillight on his neighbor’s used Mercedes he was reportedly about to purchase. We’re learning from places like Ferguson, Missouri, and a report from Los Angeles, California, how minor traffic stops for African Americans too often lead to further, deepening arrest and jailing complications. It’s the application of Rudy Giuliani’s beloved “broken windows” policy to minor vehicular infractions. It’s also called police harassment.

In such a petty, oppressive climate, Scott’s ultimately fatal decision to flee a white officer who had stopped him for a busted taillight was understandable. As the procedure is constructed to play out, Officer Slager had likely stopped Scott for the taillight as a pretext to go through his computer to look for more serious and outstanding infractions. It’s a “gotcha” moment. In the dash-cam video, as Officer Slager walks to the driver’s side window of the Mercedes, he gives the taillight a gentle, loving tap. Whether Scott owed child support or whatever, it seems he felt further complications like jail were a likelihood. Like anyone, Scott had a life that meant other commitments that day. As you watch the dash-cam video of Scott waiting in his car, you can imagine a host of things going through his mind. He apparently called his mother during those seconds before he decided to bolt from the car, leaving his driver’s license in the hands of Officer Slager.

Feidin Santana first showed his now famous video to Scott’s family. Fearful of police retaliation, he waited to see if the police would come up with the truth. Once he realized the System was sticking with Officer Slager’s bogus story, he released his video to the Scott family. He said Officer Slager had been in control of Scott the whole time, until Scott finally broke free and ran. The video so unambiguously destroyed the claim that Officer Slager was in fear for his life, the North Charleston Police Department and its Criminal Justice System immediately shifted into reverse. You could almost hear the gears grinding. A secret grand jury wasn’t an option in this instance. Recognizing that Slager was now toast, he was immediately thrown to the dogs, fired and charged with murder.

There is a stark lesson embedded in this amazing turn of events. First off, it shows there’s good cause to be skeptical of accounts of a shooting officer’s fear-for-his-life and claims of self-defense. Santana’s videotaping has tarnished that narrative significantly. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is right when he says the incident is “deeply troubling on many fronts.” As Scott is bleeding out, Slager is shown on the video going to retrieve his Taser and dropping it by Scott’s body as a black officer walks up, a man Reverend Al Sharpton wants charged for something, since he did nothing and apparently went along with the bogus story.

Before the Fox News crowd goes ballistic and I get accused of hating cops and calling for them to be shot in their patrol cars, it needs to be said, police officers are a necessary part of society and civilization in general. This is not an anti-cop rant. Most cops are hard-working, good men and women. The issue is how to ferret out the rotten apples and establish in our police departments a sense of community policing where citizens are not seen as the enemy — especially citizens in poor and minority communities. The problem is exacerbated by a psychology of militarization rooted in things like the failed Drug War, the post-9/11 War On Terror and the linkages between these militaristic institutions and local police forces. This insidious mix contributes to an elitist, even narcissistic, esprit-de-corps in which cops see themselves as a beleaguered and unappreciated thin blue line and citizens as the enemy. A vast wasteland of hack TV imagery emphasizing guns and vengeance doesn’t help. Why, for example, in the Cleveland community where an African American child was shot dead for playing with a toy gun is the police headquarters on the fringes of that community called an FOB, a Forward Operations Base, derivative of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Combine this psychology with police unions, which are a real anomaly of our times, and you have a tough nut to crack. Unions are everywhere being dis-empowered and destroyed. Why, then, is the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) one of the strongest blue collar unions in America? Does it have something to do with the fact most unions are seen as anathema to an individualistic society swearing allegiance to profits and a free market? So why does the FOP get a pass? Not only are cops given the benefit of the doubt in the criminal justice system in which they operate as front line troops, in the individualistic, capitalist free-market system in which growing economic inequality has become a national disgrace, their unions are allowed to thrive as labor collectives.

Citizens and Surveillance

A recent New York Times story listed a series of apps coming on line to bolster the use of citizen cell phone cameras. These apps consider the stress and fear an individual is under when witnessing something like a police shooting unfold before his or her eyes. They make the operation easy: You hit an icon button that turns the camera on, and you hit the same button to turn it off; then the app does what’s necessary to send the video to You Tube. So when the huge, adrenaline-juiced cop sees you, physically threatens you and illegally snatches your cell phone, the confiscation is moot.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is a national leader in police and camera issues. He has said many times, as he said responding to this case, “people have the right to videotape cops as long as they don’t interfere with arrests.” This latter, of course, provides huge wiggle room. The Philadelphia police exploit this wiggle room all the time. They’ve threatened me with arrest for shooting civil disobedience arrests from a location where there was no question of my interfering with anything. Just being there and pointing a camera was deemed interference. In one case, a colleague of mine refused to budge and was arrested; afterwards, she was quickly released and, later, got a healthy financial settlement. Preventing her from shooting was illegal; everybody knew that. But arresting her got her out of the way and prevented possibly embarrassing or incriminating photos from being taken. The Philadelphia Police Department simply has a budget line for what amounts to civil fines for openly breaking the law.

A public civil disobedience action is one thing; shooting an illegal police action in an out-of-the-way location with no witnesses is another. In the case of Officer Slager shooting a fleeing Walter Scott in the back, the distance between the camera person and the officer, the fact there was a fence and trees separating them and Slager’s intense focus on Scott all work to the cameraperson’s advantage and safety. Slager does glance in the direction of Santana’s lens for an instant after he has fired eight times and Scott falls. Had he seen Santana with his cell phone camera before he opened fire, would he have opened fire on Santana? Likely not, since seeing a camera operator would have seriously complicated the scene for him. Maybe the sudden realization of an objective eye on him would have influenced him to check his lethal, adrenaline-driven impulse vis-à-vis Scott and he’d still be cruising his beat today and be able to see the birth of his child.

This case makes a powerful argument for increased citizen use of cell phone cameras and quick video-to-You-Tube apps. According to press reports, police departments are now putting body cameras on their officers and dash-cams in squad cars in response to all the civilian cell phone cameras out there. Police are beginning to see cameras as a means of covering themselves legally. While a camera buttoned to Officer Slager’s chest would have been just as damning about the shooting, it would have captured some of the struggle not seen in Santana’s video — something a good prosecutor might make something of.

In the opening of his 1998 book, The Transparent Society, David Brin posits two very distinct cities 20 years hence, which would be right about now. Both cities are saturated with surveillance cameras. In City #1, all the cameras feed into a police headquarters where the results remain secret from the city’s citizens. In City #2, the same cameras are everywhere; the difference is, every citizen has the capacity with some gadget (like the currently omnipresent i-phone) to receive image data from all the cameras, including cameras inside the police department. Police can spy on citizens, but citizens can equally spy on police. Brin asked, which city do you want to live in? In City #1, a perception of privacy exists, but it’s a delusion. In City #2, that delusion is gone; there’s not even a perception of privacy. But citizens have more power.

In the realm of the National Security State officially established in 1947 and now working with capacities beyond the grasp of most citizens, the worst elements of City #1 are becoming institutionalized to a frightening degree. Think the ever-more-powerful tools of the NSA able to monitor all our email and phone conversations. The way it works, intelligence entities have the power to secretly obtain whatever information they want concerning the citizenry, while an incredible regime of secrecy keeps any and all surveillance of the National Security State out of legal reach. Citizens are now at the point we have to rely on “criminals” like Edward Snowden to give us even a glimpse into what’s going on. It’s noteworthy that Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul has said, if elected, the first thing he’ll do is shut down this NSA surveillance program. It may be a good sound bite, but part of the fear Paul is exploiting is that runaway militarism has become more powerful than even a president who lives and dies at the mercy of fickle, money-driven electoral politics.

In these cynical times, one can foresee this kind of one-way power dynamic in the world of surveillance haunting the future of citizen cell phone camera use. We all know cell phone use can be obnoxious. I have faith that at some point some right-wing police apologist is going to suggest we need to legally control the use of the ever-present cell phone camera. The argument will center on privacy — or more accurately, the perception of privacy. This political battle may be coming sooner than we think thanks to effective incidents like the one in North Charleston. Plus, the technology empowering bottom-up, citizen surveillance is only going to grow.

Can the System Be Reformed?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Forgiveness, a movement of revolutionary thinking the roots of which I’d place in the mind of Jesus Christ, who you may recall George W. Bush claimed as his favorite philosopher. For me, the only way to solve the national problem raised by the highly publicized cases of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and too many other cases of black men shot down by police without any accountability, is to give greater credence to Forgiveness in the criminal justice system.

Officer Slager would have benefited greatly from an understanding of the tenets of Forgiveness. He might have realized that police officers are susceptible to internally generating fear of an otherwise non-threatening citizen due to a self-perception of elite power that must be defended to the death. Slager might have better understood what it’s like being an African American male burdened by the many mundane, bureaucratic and economic hurdles and prejudices of modern life circa 2015. If he had been more humble and more forgiving of someone like Walter Scott, he might have been able to look upon the man’s bolting as something to empathize with and deal with on another day, rather than as a personal affront requiring him to kill the man. That’s what a community-oriented police officer would have done. North Charleston should not be mistaken for Falluja, and community policemen like Officer Slager should not aspire to be SEAL team killers.

NBC’s Lester Holt asked Feidin Santana was he glad to see Officer Slager charged with murder and jailed. No, the 23-year-old emigrant Dominican barber said, he was saddened to see anyone put into jail. This is the sort of humble, courageous dignity we want people like Officer Slager to carry themselves with.

Officer Slager will pay for the decision he made. Exactly what that payment should be is always an open question. White cops get breaks all the time, while poor, black citizens historically have gotten the book thrown at them for even minor infractions. That’s tragically how our flawed criminal justice system works.

Putting Officer Slager in prison for a long time thanks to Santana’s video may be the just thing to do. But that alone doesn’t get us very far as a society with a growing police problem. Throwing one cop to the dogs doesn’t solve the larger justice issue. To get someplace, we need constructive social change, which means relentlessly ferreting out the rotten apples from our police departments, establishing more citizen review boards with teeth, instituting better training and supervision of our police, ratcheting down the failed Drug War, commuting non-violent drug sentences, devising more socially creative sentencing so we send fewer people to prison, subsidizing educational opportunities for the economically distressed, creating jobs and investing in a commitment to rebuild a faltering middle class to counter the growth of economic inequality.

There’s more to society than worshiping a free market and profits. Finally, our politicians need to do more than express disgust when an unlucky cop is caught flagrantly in an unprofessional violent act. Our leaders need to demand our police treat all citizens with dignity and support legislation that enforces this state of mind in our police departments.

In the meantime, we need more cameras and more brave citizens like Feidin Santana who step up, do the right thing and make a difference.

John Grant is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, uncompromised, five-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.

JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, uncompromised, five-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.