Amateur Videos Reshaping Police Use of Deadly Force

05/20/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

On July 17, 2014, New York citizen Ramsey Orta recorded, via cellphone, the incident of NYPD officers putting Eric Garner in a choke hold, which led to Garner's death. During the raw video footage, police can be heard threatening to arrest Orta for his filming of the incident. Though Orta's video was not the only footage of the incident, it would become a part of a revolution of amateur videos hitting social media networks that greatly influence the public's opinion on police behaviors towards civilians. Orta's statement as to why he filmed this account was recorded in his testimony on the incident to the New York Grand Jury. It was clear that when Orta filmed the incident, he had no idea that Garner would die, or that his video would perpetuate the already existing social unrest between the police and urban America. And surely he did not know his video would serve as the foundation to a series of police related deaths involving unarmed Black males captured by everyday citizens seeking to establish social change.


Citizen reporting is not a new concept to the age of the internet or introduction of the cellphone. Though many Americans attribute the development of social media to the saturation and rise of citizen reporting, the behavior could be better linked to the development of handheld digital recorders. On March 3, 1991, California citizen, George Holliday used his digital camera to film the beating of a Black male motorist by a group of White Los Angeles Police Officers. This account would become most known as "The Rodney King Beating," and later as the most infamous civilian made video footage. Holiday's video created two dynamic changes to the way the media networks reported the news. Prior to the Rodney King video, such footage would have had to go through a strict editing process, which would take into account the reporter's liability to the network. Because Holiday was not an employee of a news network, there was little repercussion to the reporting network for showing the video. The showing of the video on any given network, now fell under a legal loophole that kept them from claiming any social responsibility. More importantly, Holiday's video had an impact of change that shocked the consciousness of the public by exposing the police brutality of Black people, whose claims had gone unrecorded for decades. Despite millions of dollars spent by news agencies deploying professional reporters in the field, the most provocative and socially impacting video was produce for free by an average man who wanted to document what he believed to be an act of injustice. Holiday would not be the last citizen to capture shocking video footage, though he would be best known as having done so. The age of the "camera phone" has now capitalized on the five senses of the news consumers and online social justice seekers.

In 2002, though cellphones had already existed nine years, the next generation of cellphone technology would introduce built in cameras creating a new chapter to a citizen's ability to engage in on the spot amateur reporting. In January 2007, Apple launched its first new iPhone. A major improvement from its rival, the Blackberry, the iPhone had evolved to revolutionize cellphone technology by including video recording capability. These were more than cell phones, they were "smart" phones. In addition, these phones were also equipped with a high-resolution camera and internet capability. As several "smart" phones were entering the market, social media was also evolving and developing. Expediting and accommodating images and videos via cell phone became as easy as downloading an application, better known as an "app" that would put the functionality of your desktop in the palm of your hand. This advancement in technology could have been viewed as a driving force of reducing a citizen's danger. It could also be viewed as the deciding factor in a citizen's role in reporting. But as this advancement sweeps the world, we have to question the responsibility of those civilian reporters. Do we hold them to the same standards as professional reporters? And even more importantly, are they putting themselves in dangers way?

Over the past year, countless amateur videos have flooded the internet involving alleged accounts of police misconduct towards citizens. Orta's video of the choking of Eric Garner did not produce an indictment of the NYPD officers involved. On the other hand, it was the cellphone recorded footage of Feidin Santana that held a South Carolina officer accountable for the April 4, 2015 shooting of Walter Scott. Orta, an everyday citizen on his way to work, felt that he had a duty to show the public what he believed to be acts of injustice by police. Santana felt his duty was to the family of Walter Scott even though he rightfully knew that releasing the video could result in compromising his personal safety. These two incidents brought to light issues that many people in American society are not ready to confront.

Feidin Santana explained that he recorded a South Carolina police officer fatally shoot unarmed Walter Scott after a brief foot pursuit. Feidin Santana stated that he was reluctant to release the video because he feared for his own life. Unlike Holiday, he released the video to Scott's family after police released inaccurate accounts of the incident. What has now become known as the "Walter Scott Video" is even more shocking to the public than the infamous "Rodney King Video." With no bias, no editing, and no voice over narration, the video is pure amateur reporting at its best. One may argue that the police have rights, and should not be recorded, or that citizen reporting does not capture the whole story. However, in a country that was founded on freedom, the right for citizens to record and capture these incidents is a part of one's constitutional right.

Decades ago, there would have been no forum to showcase pictures or videos even if the technology existed. But in 2015, with rapidly evolving social networks, amateur reporting is likely to swiftly overrun mass media and replace bias network reporting with reality style raw images uploaded from personal devices. It is possible that technology has created a means by which anyone can "follow their instincts" and become amateur reporters. These new apps have the technology to immediately post the incident to a social network before the video can be erased. Once posted, it lives in the world of technology inevitably for anyone to access. With rapid progress like this, American technology is likely to see modifications in other areas of citizen reporting in days to come.

From Holiday's 1991 digital handheld camcorder video footage of the Rodney King Beating to Santana's 2015 "smart" phone video footage of the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, it seems that 24 years of technology has not changed the average individual's desire to show life in America uncut. In that 24 year time span, citizens have spared no expense to provide the public with as many sides of a story that involves the police and the urban community in a way not seen in our past culture. Citizen reporting, and a citizen's responsibility to report events is in line with America's philosophies of freedom and justice. Technology merged with Constitutional Rights have become the driving force of change that has created a sense of urgency. This urgency in regards to the reform policies related to how police use deadly force, and how police officials will likely develop urban police strategies particularly aimed at conflict de-escalation between police and Black males especially.