“Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates…A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.” –On Photography, Susan Sontag (1977)
Two weeks ago a North Charleston police officer fired eight rounds at the back of an unarmed man who was fleeing the scene of a traffic stop. The officer, Michael Slager, killed the man later identified as 50-year-old Walter Scott. Mr. Scott had been pulled over because of a non-working taillight and friends and family speculate that he ran from Officer Slager because of unpaid child support payments, a detainable offense in the state of South Carolina.
According to the incident report submitted after the fatal shooting by Officer Stager and his colleagues who later joined him on the scene, Mr. Scott attempted to take the officer’s Taser and they struggled over the weapon. “He grabbed my Taser,” Officer Stager reported. Also according to the incident report several officers administered CPR and first aid to the injured man. That was the official story. And would have remained the official story if a witness hadn’t recorded the incident on his cellphone video camera.
The camera captured a different story.
The video showed Officer Slager shooting Mr. Scott in the back as he ran away from him, handcuffing him, and then walking back to pick-up an object – throwing it close to the body as other officers arrived on scene. The video didn’t show the officers administering CPR to the victim, although four officers who contributed to the report claim CPR and aid were administered. Without the video, the shooting of Mr. Scott would be much like other police shootings we hear about…allegations would have been made, speculation about police abuse and the use of excessive force, and theories presented on racism and police/community relations. Instead, the video offered a counter-narrative to the official narrative of the authorities and led to the immediate firing of Officer Slager and his arrest for Mr. Scott’s murder.
The use of cameras in capturing police abuses is shedding light on practices that have long been questioned by civil rights organizations and average citizens in communities who have found themselves the target of these abuses. The recent beating by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies of a submissive suspect caught on camera by a news helicopter is another very recent example. Some state legislators across the country have begun introducing bills to regulate the growing trend. In Texas, lawmakers attempted to create “buffer zones” that would limit photographing and filming of officers within 25 feet while Colorado legislators want to outline punishments for police officers that interfere with citizens lawfully using their cameras. After public outcry, the Texas proposal was withdrawn.
Like body cameras and dashboard cameras, a citizenry armed with cameras will not only protect the community by documenting most contacts with the police, they protect the integrity of our justice system.
Because now we can all capture the evidence and provide incontrovertible proof of what really happened.