Bystander Videos of Police Misconduct in the U.S.

Oscar Grant. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. The names of unarmed black men killed by police across the United States have etched their way into the public memory, becoming symbols of unjust policing. As bystander footage documenting those killings and other cases of police abuse flood Twitter and replay on cable news, it’s hard not to think that little has changed since the brutal assault by Los Angeles Police Department officers on Rodney King 24 years ago.

However little progress we’ve seen in law enforcement, one thing has undeniably and irreversibly changed. The advent of camera phones and social media has empowered average witnesses to document and expose abuse at an unprecedented scale. In the past year alone, their videos have given fuel to nationwide protests and reforms at local and national levels.

But bystander footage has also led to frustration when their exposure of abuse falls short of achieving justice. When a video is not used as evidence in court; when investigators, judges, and jurors don’t see the footage in the same way that thousands of YouTube viewers do; when the footage is deleted before even reaching an audience.

For the next two months, the WITNESS Media Lab will examine the impact of video in documenting police misconduct in the U.S. and its role in achieving justice and accountability. We will take a close look at several cases in which bystanders filmed police encounters–some well known, others that have received less recognition–to explore the following questions:

  • What does it take for a video of police abuse to make an impact? Why do some videos go viral, while others don’t? What makes footage more likely to be used by the media, activists, and investigators?
  • What impact can an eyewitness video have? How have they served as evidence in investigations and legal trials, and what affect have videos had on public awareness, advocacy, and reform?
  • How can bystanders film for justice? What steps can eyewitnesses take to ensure that their video is safely and effectively filmed, preserved, and shared with those who can make a difference?
  • What role does technology play in the impact of bystander footage? How do camera phones, apps, and online platforms facilitate or hinder the preservation, verification, and distribution of videos? Do proposed tools such as police bodycams and eyewitness apps address the challenges of filming and using video effectively?
  • What can we learn from around the world? What strategies have activists in other countries taken to film police abuse and use eyewitness videos for justice?

Here on the Media Lab website, we will trace the trajectories of bystander videos, from the moment a bystander presses record to coverage in the news, protests in the street, and movement along the path of justice. We’ll share guidance, expertise, and tools from organizations that empower communities to film the police use eyewitness video to advocate for accountability. We’ll bring together activists, journalists, and technologists to share strategies and identify gaps in the tools and tips bystanders need to film police encounters safely and effectively.

We invite you to take part in the conversation by sharing your thoughts, tools, and resources with us on Twitter at @WITNESS_Lab.

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