In the understandably volatile aftermath of the killings in Baton Rouge, La., Falcon Heights, Minn., and Dallas, the role of citizen-recorded videos has been at the forefront of debates over police tactics.
On one hand, civil rights activists know the videos simply make “viral” a level of brutal misconduct that has existed for a long time.
On the other, skeptics say the videos are evidence of a piecemeal and potentially misleading nature.
In my view, both perspectives are valid and both are convincing reasons why citizen videos promote justice in potent and irreplaceable ways.
First, from a legal perspective, the very nature of evidence is piecemeal and contextual; its value is to present or lead to proof that can establish material facts at trial.
Citizen videos, spontaneously produced by bystanders who quickly grab the nearest cellphone or camera, are partial depictions that nevertheless reveal the specifics of police-civilian interactions in undeniable ways:
-In Staten Island, N.Y., Eric Garner gasped while dying from a police chokehold and repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
-In Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead in a park as he played with a toy gun.
-In North Charleston, S.C., Walter Scott was shot eight times in the back as he fled a police officer during a traffic stop.
To this tragic litany we now add the videos of Alton Sterling, tackled and shot outside a convenience store, and Philando Castile, shot and left bleeding to death in his car as a 4-year-old girl watched.
As more details about the pair of killings emerge, the videos will be critical evidence in providing a full context of events.
Second, the media’s dissemination of citizen videos has raised the awareness of millions of people about the everyday experiences of people of color, particularly African-American and Latino men, with respect to interactions with police.
Even conservatives like Newt Gingrich have finally publicly acknowledged that the criminal justice system is infected with racism and that mass incarceration has become a crisis.
Videos have helped the broader public to see the truth in long-standing empirical studies and anecdotes about racial profiling and police misconduct: that being black or brown absolutely matters in terms of one’s chances in the criminal justice system, from traffic stop to trial to prison.
Finally, the most important value of citizen videos in promoting justice is that it’s a technique we all can use, if we are so inclined.
Anyone with a cellphone camera has the power and the right to record police interactions in public as long as the recording is not physically obstructive.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Mobile Justice and Stop and Frisk apps, among others, are freely available. These apps enable witnesses to submit videos of troubling law enforcement actions to the ACLU while also alerting other nearby users to the incident. The apps thus promote transparency, which is at the heart of the legitimacy of police accountability in our country.
Although many police departments have adopted body cams for their officers, the existence of external videos better ensures that a complete version of events will exist.
The existence of both the citizen videos and the body cam videos will also help community members work with police departments that are seeking to change their procedures and enable more productive conversations about what actually happens in such encounters.
With awareness and discussion, the hope is that the videos will not inflame, but enlighten.
Margaret M. Russell is a professor of constitutional law at Santa Clara University. She graduated cum laude from Princeton University and hold a law degree from Stanford University.