THE BLOG
12/11/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Police Violence, Cameras, and Why Video Matters

Twenty-three years ago, an African-American man, Rodney King, was beaten by police officers from the Los Angeles police department. A bystander, George Holliday, captured the abuse on his handy-cam. This now-historic video prompted international outrage, launched a national conversation about police brutality, and forever changed the power dynamics between the abuser and the abused.

Or did it?

A grand jury acquitted three of the four officers in the Rodney King case. Ultimately, only two were found guilty in a federal civil rights case. Even President George H.W. Bush admitted he was "stunned" and that "it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video." Today--more than two decades later--a video that meticulously documents how an officer from the New York police department used a prohibited chokehold resulting in the death of Eric Garner failed to elicit an indictment from a grand jury. In more than two decades, why hasn't video become more effective in exposing and ending police brutality?

I believe that it has, despite the shocking decision from the grand jury in Staten Island. Here's why.

In the aftermath of the Rodney King outcry, musician Peter Gabriel co-founded WITNESS, the human rights organization that I lead, to support the use of video "to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses." In the past week, I have found myself wishing that a citizen of Ferguson could have been in the wrong place at the right time, like George Holliday, in order to capture the killing of unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown. I believe that Michael Brown's story would have evolved differently had there been video evidence of the shooting.

I hold this belief despite the disregard the Staten Island grand jury showed for the visible truth surrounding Eric Garner's death. WITNESS has spent over two decades supporting thousands of people using video to expose, document, and prove human rights abuses; disprove perpetrators' accounts; and advocate, lobby, and organize for survivors' rights. While it can be a long road, we have seen over and over again the power of video to not only expose the truth, but to secure justice and push for systems or policy changes.

It was videos of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (captured, in part, by my colleague Bukeni Waruzi) that prompted the International Criminal Court to charge (and ultimately find guilty) former warlord Thomas Lubanga for using children in war. Video stories filmed by an indigenous community in Kenya helped reverse a decades-long struggle and convince the highest African court, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, that the community's ancestral lands had been unlawfully taken from them. And 100 personal video testimonies by victims of elder abuse in the film "An Age for Justice" played a vital role in passing the Elder Justice Act, a landmark piece of legislation to protect older Americans.

But it is not just in formalized campaign settings that video can be an effective tool. The very act of citizen witnessing--cameras in the hands of millions of ordinary citizens everywhere--can crack the armor of impunity and hasten calls for reform and change.

The citizen-shot Garner video is at work on behalf of justice. Without it, his case would have been swept under the carpet along with so many other "resisting arrest" cases where powerful interests drown out the voices of victims and their families.

It will make a difference that the world watched this video, as evidenced by US Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that a federal civil rights investigation will be launched. It will make a small but significant difference that this injustice was witnessed by so many Americans, many of whom are still in denial about the daily inequalities in this country. And it is already galvanizing demonstrations and public support, and prompting demands to reform the New York City police force.

Reversing the practice of vicious policing demands an urgent overhaul of the judicial system. That, surely, takes more than a shaky, citizen-shot video. But the collective strength of citizen video - the ability for so many of us to document and the growing volume of documentation - is in fact exactly the right tool to catalyze these much needed changes. The continual light shed on abuses will make a difference. But more needs to be done for that to become a reality.

What Difference Can Video Make and How?

The fact is the majority of human rights abuses still happen without anyone ever knowing that they took place. However, survivors of abuse or their families may choose to tell their story on video, because they believe it has to be shared and because they believe that by sharing it, their story might prevent similar abuse in the future, even if it will not bring justice in their own case.

The sheer volume of visual data of police violence is a powerful tool in pushing for policy changes that can stop persistent impunity and disprove a flawed narrative. In Brazil, a country with a long history of institutional violence, WITNESS helped create a compilation video of police brutality committed during the protests leading up to the 2014 World Cup. This video forced the Brazilian government to respond when it was presented at the Inter-American Commission earlier this year.

That said, in today's world--where technology has enabled millions of people to document, advocate, share, pressure, organize, and use video to catalyze accountability--non-indictments like the Garner case should no longer exist. For that reason, it breaks my heart when I hear the question that Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, asked after the Staten Island grand jury did not find probable cause to go to trial: "Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?" To realize the full potential of cameras in the hands of millions, a lot more must be done to ensure that exposing the truth leads to tangible justice.

1. Cataloging Video for Evidence
For starters, criminal justice systems are outdated and ill-equipped to manage or evaluate citizen-shot videos as new forms of important and irrefutable evidence--or, for example, ensure that jurors are instructed in such a way that video does not blind them to the evidence before them.

Legal systems struggle to sort through the volume of media that comes their way. Just think of the hundreds of videos that get uploaded to YouTube every hour, and how the scales of justice would tip if a judge (or a jury) were routinely presented with a well-organized catalogue of video evidence, accounting for every angle of a story, to bolster the defense or disprove a perpetrator's account. Particularly in the face of the uphill battle that prosecutors face when trying to convict cops of abuse, multiple unambiguous videos of the same event may offer the only (albeit slim) hope to alter the bias of what a juror "sees."

WITNESS is working with criminal justice experts on "video as evidence" guidelines that help courts and lawyers understand and incorporate the enormous volume of citizen media into criminal legal systems.

2. Finding Citizen Human Rights Video
Second, most videos uploaded to social media platforms by bystanders never find their way to the people who can act on them. We need the technology companies who serve as the "public squares" where these stories are shared to do a better job of creating spaces that amplify human rights videos, so that these videos can have the desired effect, be seen by the right people, and reinforce one other's accounts of the same event. This is, for example, the idea behind our Human Rights Channel on YouTube, which features verified citizen media.

3. Verifying Citizen Video for Evidence
Third, today's video stories are too easily denied and often not trusted. We now have the technological know-how to bolster the data incorporated into videos (such as metadata that proves where and when something happened)--data that will prove that a video can be trusted and has not been tampered with. At WITNESS, we call this "proof-mode," and it does not take much to incorporate it into the devices we all carry into our pockets or the social media platforms where we share videos, so that our videos are authenticated and verified. We also publish authentication resources that enable anyone to better verify footage, so that when people share a video documenting abuse, we know that it is what it purports to be.

4. Creating More Effective Video for Evidence
Lastly, the people (i.e. all of us) who are first-hand witnesses capturing the abuses in our communities lack the basic skills to film for justice, and are sometimes exposed to extraordinary risks. Millions of ordinary citizens are our best hope that the system will be transformed. That means we must equip them with ample guidance on how to use their mobile phones effectively.

Ensuring Video That Exposes Abuse, Leads to Justice
Around the world, we are seeing signs of shifts in existing power dynamics: it has become harder for judges, politicians, or decision-makers to turn a blind eye in the face of visual truths. In Brazil, for example, where the notoriously brutal police (according to activists' statistics) kill 10,000 people a year, we are starting to see hope that video evidence can create accountability. After decades of absolute impunity, the rare cases where officers are held to account almost all involve video.

We are witnessing a moment in history where we as citizens can be a powerful force in the battle against historic police violence. To do so, we need citizens, in addition to the police, to understand how to curate visuals and wield a camera for justice and policy change.

In a 2013 report, Jay Stanton, senior policy analyst at the ACLU, says that he regards it as "generally as a good thing" to equip police with on-body recording devices, also known as "cop cams." His proviso is that those cams should "primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around." At this stage, I don't trust the police or its databases with representing the public's interest in making sure that the government does its job. First, we must address significant issues with (visual) privacy, access to these body-cam videos, and the likelihood that the video that is submitted as proof could be altered or mysteriously disappear.

While it may feel counterintuitive in the wake of yet another jury who disregarded a clear-cut video, I urge you to join the band of "little sisters and brothers" armed with cameras, capturing videos collectively showing patters of systemic abuse. Facilitated by improved digital technology to share and organize, we have the power to ensure, as our nation's prosecutor said, "fairness for all."

In the words of Dr. King, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." This truth holds even more power if that single injustice is captured on video and shared.

We can't give up on the power of video to help catalyze change. We owe that much to the people whose deaths we all witnessed and watched, and for whom justice did not happen... Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Kajiemi Powell, or Tamir Rice.