When it comes to shedding light on police violence, the smartphone is an exceptionally powerful tool.
Videos that show the deaths of black people due to police brutality — from Eric Garner in 2014, to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile just this week — have started and refocused conversations around policing in the U.S.
As more and more people become empowered to hit “record,” the country grows in outrage over the violence directed toward people of color, adding momentum to movements like Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName that demand change.
Activists like Johnetta Elzie say it’s essential for recordings of police violence against the black community to exist. The narrative before this kind of documentation, she says, was deeply skewed.
“When we reclaim our own narratives via Instagram, Vine and clips on Twitter, we can tell our own stories.”
“They painted us as violent savages. Angry black people. Thugs,” Elzie tells Mashable. “That just wasn’t the truth. When we reclaim our own narratives via Instagram, Vine and clips on Twitter, we can tell our own stories.”
Jacob Crawford, founding member of the organization WeCopwatch, has been recording the police for 16 years — long before these social channels empowered citizens to do so. He has seen the evolution and growth of public attention on police misconduct, which he credits to this mass documentation.
However, Crawford says the state of police hasn’t worsened since the early days of his career — it’s just that the broader public can now take notice.
“It’s one of the uses of technology,” he says. “Unaffected people are able to see what’s happening to black and brown people and marginalized communities that are targeted by the police. It allows everyone to be on the same page, and have a conversation about police practices in America.”
Documenting police violence is crucial, Elzie says, because it provides proof of experience, as well as the autonomy to tell the story of her own community.
“It’s literally a way to combat what we are going up against,” Elzie says. “It’s a machine that has protections that citizens just do not have. Recording takes back some of that power.”
Here’s what you should know when using your smartphone to document police brutality.
1. Know your rights.
You have the right to film police interactions on public property — and private property, with an OK from the property owner. But it’s important to be well-informed before doing so.
“The basic legal situation is that if you are in public, you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view, including police officers who are carrying out their duty,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU, tells Mashable. “But you cannot interfere with the police officer’s operations.”
“You have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view, including police officers.”
While the ACLU has seen some law enforcement agencies push back on what “interference” means, Stanley says it’s largely a test of common sense. If you jump in the middle of a police encounter to record a video, then you’re interfering. But if you’re standing by, letting the scene unfold in front of you, your documentation is protected.
“Photography is a First Amendment right,” Stanley says. “This is a form of oversight over our government, and therefore deserving of great protection.”
To learn more about your right of public documentation, visit the ACLU’s guide to what to do if you are stopped or detained for taking photographs in public.
2. Go in with the goal of de-escalation.
Crawford says you should approach a situation with your camera out, slowly and cautiously — both for your safety and the safety of the person being stopped.
“This is about documenting the everyday abuse communities of color experience at the hands of police.”
He also says to communicate to both the person stopped and the police officer that you’re there to advocate and not interfere. Your goal is to have an active record of that moment, but it’s also a tactic in nonviolent de-escalation.
“Really, this is about documenting the everyday abuse communities of color experience at the hands of police across the nation — and really exposing it as well,” Yul-san Liem, co-director for Justice Committee, tells Mashable.
Police brutality, activists argue, stems from an abuse of unchecked authority. Crawford says cameras reclaim some of that power; an officer is now being watched, which can act as a reality check. More often than not, he says, the act of bearing witness with technology can deter police misconduct.
“In the moment of being recorded, the officer has to make a decision of whether they are going to keep doing what they are doing, or follow the law,” Crawford says.
3. Be an active supporter.
Image: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
You can — and should — be vocal about recording an interaction to actively support the person being mistreated. Police interactions, especially for communities of color that receive the brunt of policing, can be scary, intense and dehumanizing for those targeted.
Crawford says it’s essential to let the person being stopped by police to know you are there for them.
“This is about community looking out for community,” he says. “It’s about people willing to bear witness, be present and advocate for people [for whom], if they didn’t know people were watching them, it would feel very scary and isolating.”
Even one-sentence reminders, like “I’m still here for you,” can help create that sense of togetherness.
“You want to make your presence and intentions known,” Black Lives Matter organizer Ashley Yates says. “You want to do that repeatedly.”
4. Think about the logistics of footage.
When documenting an incident, it’s important to also think of the most effective way to do so. Liem says a bystander should try to get a full shot, rather than trying to get up close (which may be seen as interfering with police) or even trying to show a badge number.
“You want to make sure the shot is full, so that if other cops are entering the scene, you get that,” she says. “If you are focusing on an officer’s face and there is a kick below, you might miss that.”
Crawford says that narrating time, date, location and identities of the officers involved are all key to complete documentation of a situation. But too much additional commentary isn’t necessary.
“We try not to muddle the video with opinions, ideas or speculation on things we just don’t know about,” Crawford says.
Too much talking, Liem also advises, may narrate over what the officers are saying or key parts of the audio that could be useful later.
5. Take care of yourself.
Recording can be risky, especially when you suspect a police officer is abusing their authority. But it can especially be risky if you are a person of color who feels threatened by police violence.
“These are not easy situations to watch personally.”
“It’s risky. It’s scary,” Elzie says. “Whenever you are going up against a system that already exists and protects itself, it’s very risky to snatch the sheet off and expose it to the world. But that’s what we have to do.”
It’s essential to take measures to ensure your own well-being. Liem recommends sending a text to a friend if you are alone. If you’re unlawfully detained for recording the interaction, Liem says, it helps to know that someone else knows your whereabouts.
But, she also adds, due to the charged nature of police encounters, it’s also important to just check in on your own mental health.
“These are not easy situations to watch personally, so you want to check in with yourself when you are engaging in this activity,” Liem says. “You need to center yourself to be able to bear witness.”
6. Use discretion when releasing videos publicly.
When the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota hit the internet, Yates tried to avoid watching it to protect her own well-being. But the video found her through an autoplay function with no disclaimer on social media.
“It was really hard,” she says, admitting that she’s still shaken by a video she did not want to see.
“It’s important to be careful and cautious about what you are actually sharing.”
Publicly released videos shed light on police violence for communities that are not directly targeted by it. But they have also led to a nonstop replay of trauma for people of color, who constantly come upon black deaths via social media — and mainstream media — playing these videos on a continuous loop.
Elzie sees the role of video as a “double-edged sword.” On one hand, videos validate what black people have been saying about police violence for so long. But video is also, at times, used to re-victimize the community.
“It’s taking the sheet off a lie and exposing people to it,” she says. “But, at the same time, it’s very delicate and raw that you are watching someone literally lose their life. It’s important to be careful and cautious about what you are actually sharing.”
To counteract this, Elzie recommends using trigger warnings and disabling autoplay before you post a video.
7. Know your audience — and their role.
Bystanders film the police for a simple reason: accountability. But that accountability isn’t only directed toward the police — it’s directed toward a culture that desperately needs to shift.
“We don’t need to be subjected to it. We live it.”
It’s important to know, Yates says, that any video you take of police brutality directed at people of color is mostly for a white audience.
“Black folks, we don’t need to be subjected to it,” she says. “We live it. We know the experience.”
For those who do watch the videos, there should be purpose in that kind of media consumption.
“We need the videos of our deaths to be powerful tools for change,” she says.
Apps that help you record
Darren Baptiste, creator of the iPhone app Cop Watch Toronto.