Recent events in McKinney and Austin have attracted widespread attention not merely because they happened, but because so many of us could see what happened. These events highlight the value of everyday citizens responsibly filming police activity.
It’s unlikely that we’re witnessing an increase in problematic behavior by officers or the public. What’s new is that these videos lend credibility to those who have complained in the past of unfair practices.
Cameras allow us to hold our public officials accountable. Responsibly filming police or any other government official operating in public is one way each of us can support the democratic process. Such transparency fosters conversations about law enforcement policy and the kind of communities we wish to build.
To responsibly film police means staying out of any altercation, not interfering and making an effort to document the entire event so that others can make their own judgments about what happened.
We live in a society awash in stereotypical representations of police officers and criminals. Entertainment outlets cultivate fear repeating the same fictions, in which certain types of people are criminals and police always solve the case while occasionally “bending the rules” for justice. Even if we know intellectually that people of all races can be criminals and that police officers are fallible, these stereotypes are deeply ingrained.
So when videos surface that show officers pepper-spraying a bystander after snatching his smartphone or putting a knee into the back of a hysterical teenage girl, we are shocked, saddened and shaken. We might even want to discredit the videos or the people who made them.
Instead, I would suggest that such videos should inspire us all to be grateful to live in a democracy that grants us the right to keep an eye on the government. Our Bill of Rights offers a number of ways for everyday citizens to keep the powerful in check, and filming police is one.
Legislation such as the bill filed this past session in Texas that would have made it illegal for a resident to film within 25 feet of police activity is not the way to go.
We can all sympathize with the pressures of police work while still expecting them to make good decisions in the field. But we cannot have realistic conversations about how police should de-escalate tense situations or peacefully settle high-stress encounters unless we understand what their work is like. Videos such as the ones from McKinney and Austin can inform these discussions.
Many departments across the country are considering the use of wearable cameras, or “badge cams,” for officers, which would augment the evidence gathered by the already common “dash-cams.” These recorders are useful for learning what happened from an officer’s perspective.
But they can easily be turned off or blocked when an officer strays from protocol — those times when public oversight is most needed. That’s why the additional perspective of the everyday citizen’s smartphone is invaluable.
I am, in a sense, encouraging everyone to act as a journalist once in a while. There’s no need to use the smartphone to embarrass innocent people who are physically sick or mentally ill. Posting videos of people merely to humiliate them is not only unkind; it does not advance the public interest. But documenting government employees when they’re working in public, particularly when those government employees carry deadly weapons, makes good sense.
The best thing that can happen when we document officers at work is nothing. The best videos show safe, civil encounters between police and the public, boring and un-newsworthy. Indeed, one so-called cop-watcher I’ve interviewed for my research about the police accountability movement says the best nights he spends filming are the ones in which nothing happens and everyone goes home safe.
We’re already used to the idea of “saying something” when we see something unsafe occurring in our midst. Learning to “film something” will only help us build the kind of community that we most desire.
Mary Angela Bock is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) June 16, 2015