Am I the only one wishing that the army of smartphone video warriors could do MORE in the cause of justice than simply recording police arrests?
Lately, there’s been a spate of police arrest videos cropping up all over social media. The videos – like the recent one showing New York City police officers placing Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a chokehold – are a great tool for holding law enforcers accountable and documenting instances of potentially excessive force.
Garner died following his arrest. It would be a very good result if the mobile phone video can help investigators prove where police crossed the line or did little to help in the immediate moments afterward.
Since George Holliday videotaped LAPD officers mercilessly beating Rodney King in 1991, ordinary citizens armed with their camcorders and now smartphones have been on the front lines keeping police honest by documenting their arrest procedures. Let’s applaud the videographers who continued that tradition and recorded the Garner incident and others.
But, let’s not stop there; that’s insufficient.
Here’s the concern: Where are these ubiquitous smartphones hiding when the other more than three-quarters of non-police committed offenses are taking place? Let’s be brutally honest: Even at their worst and most aggressive, police aren’t committing anywhere near a fraction of the murders, rapes, shootings, stabbings, drug sales or other criminal wrongdoings that rampantly brutalize and woefully destabilize our communities.
It would seem the same folks who readily have their Samsungs or iPhones handy whenever five-oh slams a man to the pavement also could have them around when – say – they spot a street corner drug dealer slipping heroin into some kid’s hand. Or, maybe the next time they witness a suspect fleeing a crime scene, one of these video-activists might click the record button, then share their video with police and on social media. Wouldn’t that be just as helpful in the cause of justice and social order as videoing cops gone wild?
Let’s go on record and say, “Yes.”
In big cities across the Nation, FBI stats show violent crime solve rates bogged down in the 40 percent range. Many crimes go unpunished because witnesses fail to come forward leaving offenders to run free.
Enough times, crimes happen in the light of day with onlookers nearby; yet mysteriously no one sees anything. Conveniently – more like inconveniently – not one phone is around to record a thing that might lead to an arrest and a conviction.
Understandably, some citizens feel powerless and afraid of retaliation. In a twisted flip of law and order, they’re caught between community thugs whom they fear because they terrorize neighborhoods and police whom they mistrust because they occasionally behave like thugs themselves. The result is a vacuum of inactivity that leaves criminals out on the streets and communities and police powerless.
In some ways, capturing the cops on video while they capture alleged criminals has become the citizens’ way of reclaiming power. Catching a cop red-handed is a sort of leveling of the playing field; potentially it can lead to justice and it’s relatively safe too (it’s unlikely the police will retaliate by gunning you down later in a drive-by).
Still, is justice really just if it lacks balance? How much different are people who only record police misdeeds from cops who only pull over speeding motorists of color? Whether your authority comes from a smartphone or a badge, profiling by any other name remains profiling and the job remains half done, the mission incomplete.
Let’s not stop catching cops, but how about catching a few more bona fide bad guys too.
Eric Garner’s family deserves justice. Likewise, every other crime victim does as well. Smartphone video may bring Garner’s survivors closer to a legal resolution. It also could help so many other crime victims if video activists bring the same passion to capturing criminals as they do to capturing the police.
Face it, aiming your camera at the cops, but not the criminals, doesn’t make you some sort of crusader for justice, it simply makes you another guy with a phone.
-Jonathan Clarke, July 31, 2014
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