WASHINGTON: The pattern has become familiar: a black person dies at the hands of police, with video footage of the incident hitting social media and fueling accusations of bias and misconduct.
Over the past week, 32-year-old Philando Castile was fatally shot by police in Minnesota as civil rights investigators probed an incident a day earlier in Louisiana in which 37-year-old Alton Sterling was slain by officers.
They are among a dozen black people killed by police in the United States in the past few years whose deaths were the subject of viral videos that brought forth angry allegations of police brutality.
While the extent of police wrongdoing remains unclear, criminal justice specialists say widespread use of social media and smartphone videos have shined light on these cases, paving the way for changes in policing.
“What constitutes police brutality or misconduct is a matter of interpretation, and until now that was left up to the police departments and the top brass,” Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Canada’s Brandon University and author of the 2016 book Policing and Social Media. “Now these videos are circulating online immediately after an incident and what constitutes brutality is now left to all of us.”
The use of “citizen journalist” videos in these kinds of cases is now new, dating back to the 1991 beating of taxi driver Rodney King, which sparked riots in Los Angeles.
But it has become far more prevalent with the ability to post smartphone videos instantly on social media such as Facebook or Twitter.
“Whereas citizen journalists often drove media coverage of the so-called Arab Spring, for example, they’re now performing a similar service in the national discussion of race and policing in the US,” said David Uberti, a fellow with the Columbia Journalism Review. “Social networks like Twitter have helped amplify such individual voices, with content shared nationwide in hours, if not minutes.”
Schneider, who has studied police departments in the US and Canada, said the latest high-profile cases are likely to lead to a “historic change in policing.”
That is because minorities and communities that have been marginalized have been given a voice by social media, forcing police departments to rethink their entire strategy, he said.
“One of the biggest challenges to police agencies is that they need to regain control of public perceptions,” Schneider told Agence France-Presse. “We need to believe that the police are the good guys.”
Schneider says wider use of body cameras and police recording devices should be a priority and may help authorities “regain the narrative” and control of data quality in cases where misconduct is alleged.
A study led by Arizona State University criminologist Michael White found a sharp decline in citizen complaints of excessive force following deployments of body-worn cameras.
Yet many argue that cameras and videos are not a perfect solution to police problems. Civil liberties advocates warn about privacy issues.
David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said videos show a limited amount of information and can’t accurately reveal when an officer feels threatened.
“A video is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional perspective from one perspective,” Klinger told AFP.
Klinger said his research shows a disconnect between what police officers see and hear and what is on a video. This so-called “perceptional anomaly” is seen in 95 percent of police officers, he said.
“Human perception is very different from what a video captures,” he said.
Wade Henderson, who heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told a congressional hearing last year that body-worn cameras on police may not be a panacea.
“Cameras point away from the people who operate them. Body-worn cameras will be trained on members of the community, not the officers themselves,” Henderson said. “And heavily policed communities of color, where there are more police, will be more heavily recorded.”
Antonio Ginatta, who heads the US advocacy program at Human Rights Watch, said citizen videos nonetheless may hold authorities accountable.
“The power of videos showing police violence first-hand is unquestionable,” Ginatta said in a blog post.
Ginatta said that these incidents are “not a new phenomenon (but) are now being witnessed by the world.” AFP