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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

watch it: “POLICE FATALLY SHOOT UNARMED MAN – Laying Face Down and Shot in The Back! CAUGHT ON VIDEO!”

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:

And this:

This appears to be the raw video of the footage that appears on the news report immediately above:

And more:

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.

Behave yourselves.

(For more coverage of this story, and particularly the element of amateur video, see Witness’s The Hub.)



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  • That is horrifying.

    I don’t know how your question can possibly have another answer, MaryAnn, than the one you gave — it’s hard to imagine these videos will have any kind of affect on the outcome of this particular investigation; believing that would mean I believed every one of the cops in that video would have taken the shooting officer’s side against what seemingly happened.

    Instead, I’ll say that the ubiquity of video is both good and bad; embarrassing moments are caught on tape just as easily as horrific ones. We behave better when we’re being recorded, but we also have less fun.

  • Peter Connolly

    For me the significant thing is that this debate over ubiquitous surveillance has moved out of the SF Convention arena where it was a popular sparing point 20 years ago and out into the real world.

    Back then the consensus came down to, “Watching everybody all the time is the same as watching nobody none of the time in that we are at least all treated equally.” But this simply moved the debate over to how to police the surveillers.

    In many European countries the laws on photography in public places are so strict that almost every tourist who pulls out a camera to snap a picture of their friends is technically breaking the law and we’ve all heard the stories of tourists finding themselves under arrest because there happened to be a policeman in the background of a photo they took.

    In practice though, when you make the law this draconian it gets treated like copyright law which becomes ineffectual when everyone breaks it and prosecution is based on random chance.

    Back to the police: remember when Police Internal Affairs started laying random stings at crime scenes instead of targeting only officers suspected of a crime? Police who turned up at the scene never knew if the drugs and money they found belonged to a drug dealer or Internal Affairs.

    I think this started in New York and was so successful (after all, you didn’t have to hunt out corrupt police – they came to you) the practice soon spread around the world.

    Honest cops had a different view of this practice and felt they were all being treated as criminals and the principal of proof-of-guilt had been turned on its head to require proof-of-innocence. They also felt they were being thrown into high stress situations which turned out to be fake with no particular justification.

    In Britain police monitored video surveillance of High Streets has been so successful they are now adding speakers to the cameras so they can tell criminals to cease and desist before an officer actually arrives. The next logical step will be providing directions to the nearest Police Station so they can hand themselves in.

    Somewhere there is a balance in all this but it can’t be end-justifies-the-means expedience at one extreme or draconian and unenforceable laws at the other.

  • JasonJ

    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?

    As a former member of law enforcement, I can only speak for myself. While on duty, I was fully aware of the cameras and cell phones, but it didn’t matter to me. I was always professional, and always acted above board. Long before cell phones and digital camera, there were still officers doing their job under a microscope. As officers, we ourselves are recording video from the car, and at least two forms of audio when exiting the car, so there isn’t much difference.

    Actually, the people with cell phones and cameras probably exonerate more officers falsely accused than provide evidence of wrong doing by officers. There are people that still actually like the police. Somewhere. It is just another thing in the back of the mind of a human being that has less than one second to decide the fate of another human being. In the end, it is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6, and thankfully the legal system judges by the Reasonable Man standard, and not by the Hindsight Armchair Quarterback standard.

  • Yeah, what he said. That’s kinda what I was trying to say, only he did it better.

  • JoshB

    Will the ubiquity of video change how police officers behave?

    Tough to say. It all has to do with what goes through a cop’s mind in those moments. Everyone has asked themselves “what was I thinking?” after their emotions have gotten the better of their rational judgment.

    Was he conscious that there were people all around watching, and recording? Did the alarm sound in his head telling him that this was a bad idea? Did he ignore it because he was too frustrated because he was at the tail end of a ten hour shift, because his clothes weren’t dry when he put them on this morning, or his wife is divorcing him, or he got passed over for a promotion, and now he’s got to break up this fight and the kid is mouthing off and won’t cooperate and all he wants to do is go home and get some fucking sleep?

    Did his stomach fall through his feet a quarter second after he pulled the trigger? Did time stop as he asked himself “What did I just do?”

    If you reach a moment when your emotions are such that you’re willing to shoot someone, would the possibility of a camera pointed at you really stop you?

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    The problem is, video like this doesn’t help when it’s as ambiguous as it is here as to what exactly happened. All it does is stir up the kind of rage that, well…

    I live in Oakland. You may have read about the 300 shops and who knows how many cars smashed up the other day? That was right outside my apartment. Today I tried to catch the BART to San Francisco, to watch a movie with some friends, and found myself in the middle of 1968. Multiple helicopters hovering overhead, streets cordoned off, cops posted at every corner, flashing lights. I had to take detours off of detours to reach the station, and until I was halfway there (and asked a cop) I didn’t know if the BART would even be open, with all the commotion. It was.

    This is an angry city, and people read into video like this exactly what they want to. It becomes a catalyst for all their emotion, an excuse to do whatever they want under the guise of justice or retribution.

    There are these amazing quotes in the Oakland Tribune, from protesters. A schoolteacher’s car is smashed up and set on fire; she expresses her discontent; “f— your car!” is the response she gets. Owner of an African braid shop a block from here gets her shop smashed up; someone is quoted saying “better that than get shot!” As if it were an either-or choice. And then there are the zombie stories about Telegraph.

    I’m rambling a bit here. This is, of course, a unique circumstance. But my point is, information can do more harm than it can do good when it’s incomplete or unclear. And the more rapidly that unclear information is spread, the more damage it can do before the facts become more apparent.

  • Alli

    Eric-jon, I personally don’t believe the video was ambiguous, but I agree it cannot be used as an excuse to do more damage to innocent people.

    To get back on topic, honestly, this question makes me a little sad. Do we really live in the world where people’s moral compasses are driven by whether or not someone is watching? Sure I did stupid things when I thought no one was watching, but to think someone would actually say, “I’m not going use excessive force without reason because someone might be recording,” is disturbing to me. So in my naive little heart, I don’t to answer because either choice seems so wrong to me.

  • Aaron

    The behaviour of authorities will not change unless we as citizens can retain the ability to film their actions. We must resist efforts to ‘big brother’ our cities like England has. When only the authorities control the cameras then only the authorities will benefit.

  • Chris-E

    This is a tough question and an intersting situation. I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

    Personally I think society on the whole is on the decline and if cameras are required for people to “behave” civilly then the cameras are not the problem or the solution. That includes cops too.

  • Vergil

    Do we really live in the world where people’s moral compasses are driven by whether or not someone is watching?

    Wow. I mean, wow.

  • JasonJ

    The last video was complete and udder crap, and would be useless in a court of law. In fact, the only thing the last video demonstrated was how immature and irrational the crowd of people, who were clearly young, were behaving. Really, the only thing any of the videos show is that something happened, but the detail is non-existent. They say he was un-armed, but was he really? Did he have a knife? A screwdriver? If he had anything that could have been used to cause injury or death, the shooting is justified. The officers were well within the 21 foot safe distance, lord knows what was going on. Would be nice to have more info, because as it stands all I saw in these videos is a bunch of “adults” acting like idiots and someone getting shot. Guess we’ll see when more info comes out.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    This is what I mean by ambiguous, yes. It’s difficult to tell just what went on in that situation. It is clear that everyone present was stunned by what happened, but it’s impossible to tell why he drew a gun in the first place, and why it went off. That leaves the video dangerously open to interpretation.

  • Alli

    JasonJ and Eric-Jon, he was handcuffed. Even if he had a weapon, there was no way he could have gotten to it with his hands tied behind his back, especially when the other officer was sitting on him. If there was no weapon drawn, there is no reason to draw your gun in the first place.

    Vergil, not sure what you meant by “Wow.” I know I’m pretty naive for wanting people to simply do the right thing because they feel every human being deserves to be treated with respect. That’s why it’s hard for me to answer MaryAnn’s question, because I just have a hard time imagining people needing a reason to do the right thing.

  • misterb

    I don’t think that every police officer would be affected by possible surveillance, but some of them will – the question is will they try to behave or will they try to play to the camera? Some officers may want to get on BlueTube where their fellow officers will applaud their toughness. And others have always behaved responsibly even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

    I’m more interested in how the rabble rousers used these videos to stoke a serious escalation of the problem. Without the videos (clear or not), I don’t think we have a week of riots in Oakland. And whether or not the shooting was justified, there’s no way that destroying businesses makes the situation any better.

    We all need to push back on the mob psychology – even if the anger is righteous – the acting out is counter-productive.

  • NorthernStar

    That’s unspeakably shocking. There are no words. I find it impossible to believe the camera was missing some extenuating circumstances. Quite simply, even if that man had been armed, he wouldn’t have posed a threat in the position he was in.

    Peter Connolly said In many European countries the laws on photography in public places are so strict that almost every tourist who pulls out a camera to snap a picture of their friends is technically breaking the law and we’ve all heard the stories of tourists finding themselves under arrest because there happened to be a policeman in the background of a photo they took.

    As a Euorpean citizen, I have never heard of these laws! And having travelled all over Europe with a variety of camera’s and camcorders, the only place I’ve been requested (not ordered by law) to not take photos is inside Churches and other places of worship, which is fair enough.

    In Britain police monitored video surveillance of High Streets has been so successful they are now adding speakers to the cameras so they can tell criminals to cease and desist before an officer actually arrives. The next logical step will be providing directions to the nearest Police Station so they can hand themselves in.

    I’ll ignore the polemics and say, yes, in the UK we have widespread CCTV coverage (one in 5 cameras the world!) and while the use of speakers has been suggested by the rightwing (and intended for internal shopping mall security, not for the police), it will not be put into practice for the simple reason it would cost too much.

    It’s affect on crime rates is pretty negliable, if the government stats are to be believed.
    Their usefulness to police to prevent crime is debatable, with the use of “hoodies” etc, but it does help in solving crime.

    I doubt anyone I know feels safer for being “Big-Brother”-ed every day and most worry more about the proposed National ID card taking away liberties than they do about the cameras.
    To be honest, I moan about the CCTV camera’s at work a lot more than I do about those on the high street.
    But maybe we’ve just got too used to it.

    If the above sounds like I’m defending them, I’m not. I just think those people – politians, media – who tell you to be wary of one thing because it takes away liberties are simply diverting your attention from something else. In this case, away from the shocking actions of these individuals.

    I have a question, though. These men are members of the transport police or part of a police force (or is that one and same in the US)?

  • JasonJ

    JasonJ and Eric-Jon, he was handcuffed. Even if he had a weapon, there was no way he could have gotten to it with his hands tied behind his back, especially when the other officer was sitting on him. If there was no weapon drawn, there is no reason to draw your gun in the first place.

    You havn’t worked as a peace officer have you? You cannot begin to understand what a person does in that situation unless you have been a cop or have been face down with your hands cuffed. You can get to a weapon with your hands cuffed. You can do a lot of things with your hands cuffed. All handcuffs do is slow things down, they are not the big “game over” thing people think they are. Like I said before, I need more information than those crappy videos and mindless speculation from irate 20 somethings at the scene before making an assessment.

    I will say though, I have this gut feeling that the officer is in the wrong, but I want all the facts first. 2 years is not a long time to be on the force. At least half of that was spent at the Academy and then in field training, he probably has not been certified and on his own for more than a year. Still, new officers tend to hold back and hesitate, they are less likely to draw and fire their duty weapon. That is why I want more facts.

  • Alli

    Okay Jason. Let’s say he is a magician and was fishing for a weapon, which is why the police office, instead of continuing to subdue him, stood up and took out his gun. If you think he has a weapon why are you letting his hands wander all over the place, why do you get off of him?

    And no, I’m not a police officer or a “peace” officer. I have very good friend who lives in Richmond who is though, so I know it’s not the easiest job in the world. But there are rules, and you don’t pull a gun unless you are in imminent danger. A guy, laying on his stomach with his hands tied, and a large man sitting on his head is going to have a very hard time doing anything that will cause fatal injury to an officer or a civilian.

    Sorry for hijacking the thread MaryAnn.

  • JasonJ

    Like I said, this is all speculation. I have a friend who is a doctor, doesn’t mean I am qualified to perform surgery. Lets just get the facts. If you had internalized my last post, you would know that my gut tells me the officer did the wrong thing, but my gut and facts are two different things. If you had any personal experience in this subject, this conversation would not be happening, so lets just agree to disagree and move on.

  • Nathan

    the cop obviously (to me anyway) gets frustrated while trying to search the guy, stands up, pulls out a weapon (or maybe he thought it was a Taser gun) and pulls the trigger. then he has a classic WTF look on his face, meaning that he knows he just made a huge mistake.

    but that’s not what MaryAnn wanted to talk about. i think there’s a difference between societal surveillance by authorities and this kind of thing — let’s call it guerilla surveillance. panoptic surveillance is meant to make people ultimately self-policing because it ingrains the sense that one is always watched by those who have the means to inflict punishment.

    guerilla surveillance will always depend on the availability of the image to the public. if YouTube or LiveLeak didn’t exist or had banned these videos, i would have never known it happened or felt much emotion over it one way or the other.

    the extent to which law enforcement officers respond to official surveillance will largely depend on the extent to which official surveillance images can be kept away from the public.

    who knows what’s been caught on police-cams that we’ll never see…

  • Chris-E

    Our society is becoming like THX-1138. Ironically that film was filmed in the BART.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    All of this back-and-forth basically supports what I’m saying. Because of its ambiguity and lack of context, people will read in what they want to see, and be absolutely certain of it. And for matters that may inflame passions, this is a potentially dangerous situation.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    For my part, I see a pathetic situation where everyone is partly to blame and everyone loses. So I’m not taking any side here, except to rail against the pervasive social duh that has come out of this incident.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    And mostly only that because I’m not too fond of getting stuck in the middle of it!

    If I had the money, I’d be moving already.

  • MaryAnn

    Do we really live in the world where people’s moral compasses are driven by whether or not someone is watching?

    I think it’s clear that we do. I think the power of conscience — that is, basically, the ability to police oneself — is vastly overrated. And clearly the major, dominant religions at the moment work on the idea that someone big and bad is watching you all the time. And even *that* doesn’t stop people from behaving badly.

    And for matters that may inflame passions, this is a potentially dangerous situation.

    It may be true that video like this does nothing but inflame the situation, but there’s no way we’re going to stop such video from being made and distributed. To do that — to ban cell phone cameras and YouTube, for instance — would be a terrible response to the potentialities. So we’re gonna have to figure out what it means to be coping with situations like this.

  • Vergil

    Alli,
    What I mean by “wow” is that I’ve never heard the word “naive” so understated in all my life. As a matter of fact I’ve rarely heard ANY word so understated in all my life.

  • Our society is becoming like THX-1138.

    Actually, I suspect our society is becoming more like the one in Brazil. Fox TV might as well be denouncing poor sportsmanship, it’s becoming more and more “in” to wink at the type of torture methods we used to consider the domain of foreign evildoers and of course, that scene at Jonathan Pryce’s workplace where everyone is watching old movies on TV seems more and more similar to the way certain people I have known tend to watch movies and shows on the Internet while at work.

    I’d like to be optimistic enough to believe things will change under the incoming administration. But we’ll see…

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