On January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant, a 22 year old African-American, was shot in the back and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, Johannes Mehserle. The shooting occurred on a station platform. Grant was unarmed.

Within hours of the shooting, videos recorded on witnesses’ cellphones and digital cameras surfaced on YouTube. These graphic videos depict Grant’s death from three different angles. The blogosphere was quick to compare the police brutality and its accompanying home video with the events surrounding the Rodney King beating in 1991. The attack against King was recorded when Los Angeles resident, George Holliday, heard commotion in the street outside his window. He quickly grabbed his Sony Handicam and began recording what he initially thought to be a gang fight. Once Holliday zoomed in, he realized he was capturing LAPD in a scuffle with Mr. King. After King was brutally beaten, four police officers were charged with assault. Despite the home video recording, the officers were acquitted, sparking the infamous L.A. Riots, in which 53 people died.

Similar violence occurred after the Grant shooting. On January 4th, a violent protest erupted in the streets of Oakland, CA, and not only were 120 people arrested, but cars were also burned and store fronts destroyed. The home videos of the Grant shooting have been blamed for sparking the violent protests that occurred.

Undoubtedly, home videos can be very valuable to law enforcement and to the courts. However, some note that videos may not tell the entire story. Circulating these types of videos encourage vigilante justice by those who have jumped to conclusions based on the limited information provided by a grainy cell phone video and YouTube comments. And ultimately, these videos could work the public into a frenzy and create more violence.

Others hale the ubiquitous presence of video recording devices as a method to ensure police accountability. Advocates point out that thousands of people have complained about police brutality in the past, but many criminal charges have been dismissed because these cases pitted the officer’s word against the conflicting accounts of victims or eyewitnesses:

“The narratives of officer-involved shootings usually conflict with the accounts of what supporters of the deceased say occurred. Simple, straight-forward, and seemingly indefensible accounts, when scripted through law enforcement lawyers, becomes muddied with additional, subjective descriptions. “The victim was unarmed and had his back turned,” (which was the case with Grant) becomes, “He looked like he was reaching for something.” Objects such as cell phones seem like weapons in the heat of the moment.
By the time grand jury testimonies are delivered, clear examples of a quick-triggered officer killing an innocent civilian get re-interpreted to validate the actions of the officer.”

The portability of the cameras allowed witnesses to capture inconspicuously the events surrounding Grant’s death. Thus, it is more difficult for a defendant-officer to bend the truth when video footage clearly captures the events in question.

Regardless of whether you think such videos do more harm than good, they seem to be here to stay. Perhaps the threat of instant YouTube fame will deter officers from becoming excessively violent and ultimately, maybe lives will be saved.

Megan Bibb

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2 Responses to Amateur Videos: Making Police Accountable?

  1. mb says:

    As far as acccountability is concerned, the only thing YouTube might prevent is the occasional slap dished out to a wise-ass kid. With the exception of a very, very few police officers in this country (a tiny fraction of a fraction of 1 percent of police officers), most police officers would not kill or seriously injure someone intentionally under any circumstance. A vast majority will not use any degree of excessive force throughout their entire police career.
    When excessive force is used, it’s usually in circumstances where some physical force is justified, but the officer throws a punch or baton strike too many under the circumstances. Often a heat of the moment kind of thing, not a fully conscious, deliberate decision. Officers do not go out on patrol with the attitude that they’re going to abuse people with total abandon. Police officers aren’t monsters. They’re normal people like anyone else, even if they are held to a higher standard.
    Occasionally they make mistakes, sometimes with enormously tragic consequences, as in the case of the BART shooting. The people out there protesting police corruption, though, are subscribing to the wildest conspiracy policies. Most of the violent protesters are nothing more than criminals seizing on an opportunity to riot and pillage. They’re clinging to the unlikely idea that Mehserle intentionally decided to execute a black man in front of a large hostile crowd.
    With regards to complaints of police brutality, the credibility of the complainants has to be examined on a case by case basis. It’s easy to cry foul following a police encounter. Police encounters frequently aren’t pleasant experiences, but that’s not to say that corruption or brutality was involved. As a general rule, most complaints come from those who have difficulty following the laws of their community. Not exactly the beacons of integrity and honesty.

  2. hb says:

    It sounds like the level of justice carried out, boils down to who has the highest megapixel cellphone.

    Ironically, the “threat” of being plastered all over YouTube, as a hinge against excessive and alleged police brutality, apparently doesn’t have the same effect upon the suspects or detainees in these encounters.

    I wonder if the zeal to capture these kinds of events and upload them to YT carries over to the thugs who felt the need to destroy the personal property of innocent 3rd parties, all in the name of racial hatred. Nah, didn’t think so. Somehow I don’t think there are going to be too many videos “clearly” showing excessive violence against innocent car owners and business owners. That certainly sparks vigilante justice too.