Hard to believe this didn’t happen sooner: cell phone cameras capture the shooting by police officer Johannes Mehserle of unarmed Oscar Grant on a BART transit platform in Oakland, California, early New Year’s morning:
Hard to believe we haven’t seen video evidence of an event like this before, that is, not that events like this haven’t happened before. The Rodney King beating comes close, but the difference here is that the cops knew people were watching, and had to have known people would be recording.
Of course, the ubiquity of portable — nay, tiny — machines that can capture video these days — digital cameras and cell phones — means that the footage featured in the news report above is not the only evidence from that night:
This appears to be the raw video of the footage that appears on the news report immediately above:
I’m actually surprised there isn’t more video, given the number of people who witnessed this incident. Perhaps there is and we’ll see it soon.
What I’d want to avoid here is a discussion of the possible guilt or innocence of the cop in question — and I certainly don’t want this to devolve into a shouting match of “All cops are pigs!” versus “No one understands the stresses cops are under!” Let’s take it as a given that all situations like this are unique, that law-enforcement situations can be volatile, that there are some good cops and some bad cops and some in the middle, that there are some people who are innocent who are hassled by the cops and some people who are guilty who are hassled by the cops but that it’s not the job of the cops in our society to be the final determiners of guilt or innocence, that even those watching events like this cannot fully grasp all the factors that may be involved, and that our culture is still trying to overcome racism but doesn’t always succeed in doing so.
What I would like to talk about here is, Will the ubiquity of video change how police officers behave? Should it? If the idea that we citizens should behave ourselves because we’re captured on video constantly is a valid one, then shouldn’t that apply to cops on duty as well? If the idea that we citizens are safer because of the ubiquity of surveilliance video is a valid one, how does that translate to situations like this?
In short: What is the long-term upshot going to be of the fact that we are now watching the watchers?
I don’t have any answers, but I do think one thing that keeps some people honest is the knowledge that, should they be discovered doing wrong, they will be called on it. That’s not to say that being under surveillance all the time is a good thing — in fact, I think it’s a specious argument to suggest that making everyone paranoid makes us all safer, and the suggestion that “if you’re innocent you’ve got nothing to worry about” is bullshit, because even the innocent can still be needlessly and pointlessly embarrassed. (Best illustration I’ve come across to illustrate this? “Oh, you don’t have a swastika tattooed on your penis, Citizen? Fine. Just drop trou and we can clear this up in a moment.” See?) But whipping out a camera and starting to record when a situation gets dicey? Perfectly acceptable.
But tell me I’m wrong if you like.
(For more coverage of this story, and particularly the element of amateur video, see Witness’s The Hub.)
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