Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The average citizen’s ability to capture and immediately broadcast video of police activity changed the way America experienced the events of this week.
One common denominator between the tragic shootings and killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, this week is the role of cameras and social media in determining what really happened. Unlike the Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights cases, videos coming out of Dallas that depict the actions of alleged assailants do not provide a picture clear enough to identify the shooters. But cameras and social media did play two other roles as events unfolded in Dallas: identifying and then clearing a person initially sought by police as a possible suspect, and providing some of the earliest on-the-ground reports of the full extent of the shootings.
Let’s start with the case of Mark Hughes, an African-American man who was photographed carrying an unloaded assault rifle during the downtown Dallas march against police violence. At 11:52 p.m. on Thursday night, the Dallas police department’s Twitter feed identified Hughes as a suspect. A short time later, a Facebook Live video emerged of Hughes surrendering himself and his gun to the police, which appears to have played a role in his release.
Hughes told the Associated Press that he was interrogated for 30 minutes, during which he said police lied to him, alleging that they had video of him firing his weapon. As of 4:30 p.m. on Friday, the Dallas police department had yet to delete a Tweet depicting Hughes as a suspect, hours after he’d been released.
This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him! pic.twitter.com/Na5T8ZxSz6— Dallas Police Depart (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
In Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American CD salesman, was shot and killed early Tuesday following an encounter with officers from that city’s police department. Members of an anti-violence group captured much of what happened on video, including Sterling being wrestled down and then shot by at least one of two white police officers, and then shared it on Facebook.
Less than 12 hours later, footage surfaced of the death of yet another African American, shot during a traffic stop. Philando Castile, 32, was shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, while he sat in the passenger seat next to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, whose 4-year-old daughter was in the back of the vehicle. Reynolds courageously began streaming the post-shooting fracas using Facebook Live, allowing thousands of people to watch as her boyfriend’s life faded away behind a seat belt.
It is not safe to assume that the police officers involved in the deaths of Sterling and Castile will be convicted of a crime, despite the existence of these videos. There was also video in the case of the New York City police officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold, resulting in Garner’s death in 2014. A grand jury elected not to indict the police officer involved in that case on criminal charges, though the video evidence did play a role in helping Garner’s family settle their wrongful death case for a reported $5.9 million in 2015.
Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. would no doubt prefer to have a public that trusts and obeys their every maneuver. What the public sees captured by iPhones and now, broadcast live on Facebook, however, gives them many reasons not to.
At the same time, police departments are clearly turning to citizen cameras and live social media feeds to aide in their own investigations. After all, these are powerful tools, but they have an equally powerful potential for disaster in the cases of those who may be falsely identified—as seen with the Hughes case in Dallas.
And despite the increased adoption of police body cameras across the country, it’s clear that many U.S. law enforcement agencies remain highly anxious about this technology.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers recently passed a bill that gives police departments broad discretion to keep footage captured on police cams hidden from the public.
In Louisiana, police are now a protected class under that state’s hate crime statutes thanks to a “Blue Lives Matter” bill that just became law in May.
And in Philadelphia, a federal court recently ruled that citizens don’t have the right to record police activities unless they’re doing so out of protest.
What all of these cases show is that cameras and social media now play a remarkable role in negotiating the relationship between police and the public. Consider what Chuck Canterbury, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police said last year in his advocacy of “Blue Lives Matter” laws:
Those spewing this hatred and those calling for violence are having an impact. They have been given a platform by the media to convey the message that police officers are their enemy and it is time to attack that enemy from ambush, from hiding. Social media accounts are full of hatred and calls to target and kill police officers. There is a very real and very deliberate campaign to terrorize our nation’s law enforcement officers.
Our members and all law enforcement officers put on their uniform and go to work to protect their communities in a state of hypervigiliance. They are making split second decisions of life or death and now part of that decision-making process includes: “How will this look on television?” or “Will I lose my job or be charged with a crime?”
Canterbury’s words no doubt take on new, tragic meaning in the wake of Dallas, an event that demands a huge amount of attention and days of nationwide mourning. But it will be equally important in the coming days not to lose sight of what happened to Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, or to Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, and the role that live video played—despite law enforcement discomfort—in bringing those cases to light.
Meanwhile, legal authorities have been able to translate, in some places, their social media anxieties into laws and policies that protect them. But legislation aimed at curbing racial profiling or limiting the use of lethal weapons in situations that don’t call for them have not made it nearly as far. The Congressional Black Caucus just lamented in a post-Dallas news conference that they have not been able to move legislation to curb police violence.
If there is a “Facebook Live Effect,” it’s a mixed bag at best, but here’s another common denominator among this week’s tragic events: All three ended up with a black man killed. History dictates that the police in this equation will have an unparalleled level of protection under the law compared to the families of the African-American victims. But if the live-streaming of these tragedies don’t disrupt that historical narrative of racial inequality, then it’s hard to imagine what will.