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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