Walter Scott and the Power of Citizen Video


Video captured by an accidental witness may have made the difference between impunity and justice last week, and it should set a new precedent for the prosecution of police aggression in the United States.

On April 4th in South Carolina, Walter Scott was pulled over for a routine traffic stop by a police officer— an encounter that ultimately cost Scott his life. Officer Michael Slager’s report of what happened that morning, detailing an altercation in which Scott was allegedly the aggressor, was refuted by bystander Feidin Santana's cellphone video of the event.

The video not only shows the officer shooting at Scott, who was unarmed and running away, but it also shows Slager appearing to tamper with the crime scene.

There is no restitution for a tragedy such as this one. However, it is encouraging that that Santana bravely captured the incident so that justice may prevail.

His video helps change the picture.

My organization, WITNESS, believes that everyone, everywhere, can be a human rights defender by using video to expose the truth—just like Santana in South Carolina. We support people who capture police abuse with critical resources, and we focus on how to turn citizen video into stronger evidence in courts.

Santana's video of the shooting is not the first citizen video showing compelling evidence of possible police wrongdoing. But many have raised questions about why this video made a difference, when video of the chokehold which resulted in the death of Eric Gardner in Staten Island did not.

Those questions are worth asking.

Our co-founder, the musician and advocate Peter Gabriel, recently addressed this in WIRED:

Law, like language, has to reflect the needs of the times. Justice systems in the United States and around the world urgently need to consider comprehensive appraisal of video as a potentially reliable form of evidence…. Will the next grand jury or prosecutor's office be able to deny the power of such a video, as they did the video of Mr. Garner being placed in a chokehold and uttering those disturbing words, “I can't breathe,” over and over again before collapsing?

It would seem that, in the case of Walter Scott's death, the answer is a resounding, “No.”

We have worked for over 22 years to support people around the world to use video more safely and effectively to document abuse. We know that even though there are cameras in nearly every person's hand, there's uncertainty about when or how best to record possible wrongdoing. In the U.S., a number of states are now working to limit the ability of citizen witnesses to film police encounters.

We believe there is a strong case for protecting the right of citizens to record. As we wrote recently in The Guardian:

Concerns about abuse and selective use of the cameras by police are well-founded, especially given that the rules are far from clear about when cameras will be on, what penalties (if any) there will be if an officer turns off their camera or loses footage, and who will have access to bodycam video….The energy behind the deployment of bodycams should be at least matched by an equal investment in citizen witnessing. We need clearer protections for people who have the courage to record crimes by the police and clearer penalties for officers who don't respect that right.

It is too early to tell if the charges brought against one police officer will change the course of how police violence incidents are investigated in the U.S.. But we remain steadfast in our support of citizens using video and our belief that video will be increasingly instrumental in bringing about justice.

Yvette Alberdingk Thijm is executive director at WITNESS. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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