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‘Look for justice’: A shooting in South Carolina and the power of video

The dash cam from North Charleston, S.C. police officer Michael Slager's vehicle shows the initial traffic stop and interaction that preceded Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott. (Video: South Carolina Law Enforcement Division)
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As Feidin Santana was on his way to work at a barbershop in North Charleston, S.C., over the weekend, he saw a police officer confronting a man. So he did something many people do every day: He took out his cellphone and began recording.

Santana said later  that he never expected to see what happened next. He did not realize he was about to film Michael Slager, a white police officer, firing a series of shots into the back of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away.

And yet Santana kept filming, moving closer to the fence separating him from the scene, fear and shock creeping into his voice as he continued to record. When he watched the video later, he found himself wondering how he maintained the courage to keep recording, he said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“I asked the same question every single time,” he told Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for The Post.

This footage spread like wildfire, turning an incident that had received little attention outside of the riverfront city into a national news event. It emphasized the acute power video can have in cases like this, particularly amid a time of increased scrutiny on police shootings and how officers interact with black people.

[South Carolina officer charged with murder had been accused of excessive force earlier]

Sometimes the video is captured by a person who just happens to be there, as in North Charleston, but other times stationary cameras play a role. A bystander recorded Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man, saying “I can’t breathe” while New York police officers had him in a chokehold. Garner’s death, and in particular the video that was recorded and viewed endlessly, prompted angry rallies that recurred after a grand jury did not indict the officer involved. Surveillance video, meanwhile, showed that the Cleveland police officer who shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, fired within seconds of leaving his car. 

What these videos and others like them have in common is that they can help clarify scenes that can become muddled and that sometimes rely solely on police accounts or eyewitness accounts that can be questioned later.

“If you have video, it does establish a core fact to some degree,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a telephone interview. “That’s what the video is good for.”

Video recordings, taken by bystanders as well as recorded by surveillance cameras, have played major roles in cases elsewhere. And not all of them involve police shootings, which have been the focal point of so many protests over the past year.

In February, two Philadelphia police officers were charged with severely beating a man in 2013 and then claiming he had attacked them. The officers filled out a police report claiming that the man had attacked them, but surveillance video later showed that that was untrue.

This week, prosecutors in Florida filed charges against a Fort Lauderdale police officer caught on a cellphone video slapping a homeless man this year. Prosecutors said that the officer filed a report that was contradicted by the footage captured by a bystander.

For the bystanders who capture these videos, there can be an element of fear, something that seemed audible in Santana’s remarks as he recorded the shooting in North Charleston and that lingered for him.

“My life has changed in a matter of seconds,” Santana told MSNBC on Thursday. “My family’s afraid what’s going to happen next with me. I’m afraid too of what can happen. But I guess I feel that what I did is just, you know, look for justice in this case.”

Nine out of 10 American adults have cellphones, and most of these people have smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. The ubiquity of these devices has altered our society in myriad ways, but cases like North Charleston and New York point to how they can be relied upon to shed light on incidents that would not otherwise draw as much notice.

In the wake of incidents like Garner’s death, or the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, a protest movement that emerged has carried with it some specific demands. One such demand is that officers be equipped with cameras on their uniforms as well as in their cars to record any interactions.

[In North Charleston, promises of change to avoid “another Ferguson”]

North Charleston officials, seeking to reassure residents and maintain calm after the video emerged, said Tuesday that all of its officers will be outfitted with body cameras.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which studies policing, looked at body cameras and determined that officers wearing them should have to activate the devices during any interactions with people and calls for service.

“These cameras can help promote agency accountability and transparency,” PERF’s research found, according to a publication it released last year with the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing.

But they also raise issues of privacy, something that could crop up when inside a person’s private residence or interviewing victims of rape or abuse.

“They can do one good thing, which is create a detailed record,” Harris said. “But they have to be turned on to do that.”

Federal investigators have pointed to cameras as a way police departments can learn from the times officers use force and try to hold them accountable. When the Justice Department investigated the Albuquerque police force, it found that officers often used excessive force but failed to properly record these episodes.

Another federal review looking into the Cleveland Police Department said that when multiple officers beat a man following a car chase, the episode was only unearthed when video emerged.

But despite the fact that recording the police is legal, there have been a litany of incidents involving officers trying to stop such recordings. The Justice Department’s review of the Ferguson police force, launched after the unrest in that city last year, determined that officers regularly stopped people there from recording any interactions.

Santana said he thought at one point about erasing the video and leaving town, because he was worried he might be in danger. Still, Santana said he would “definitely” do the same thing again.

“I don’t regret this,” he told Capehart in an interview Thursday in New York.

Santana said he wants others who see something happening to take out their phones and start filming.

“There’s a lot of heroes and all out here,” Santana told Capehart. “But they don’t want to step up and do the right thing.”