SHOWING THEIR LAST MOMENTS
WHY ACCESS TO VIDEO OF POLICE BRUTALITY IS CRUCIAL FOR JUSTICE
I grew up in a mostly white, Midwestern college town before I moved to North Carolina at 13. Fortunately, I never directly confronted racism during my childhood; I naïvely associated the idea of protesting for civil rights with decades past.
I didn’t question my ability to exercise my rights until I started college. I took several classes that explored racial divides and discrimination and began to read more about the issues my community faces — like inequitable education, economic disadvantages, and housing discrimination. I was challenged with the realization that some of my classmates didn’t understand what life as a person of color in America is like. It was perplexing at best, frustrating and infuriating at worst.
Then Michael Brown was killed at the hands of the police. And Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, John Crawford II, Jason Harrison, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and so many more unarmed citizens were killed. It seemed like almost every week another unarmed black person fell prey to the very men who had sworn to protect them. I couldn’t watch the news, read a paper, or go online without feeling my stomach drop. I watched my peers laughing and talking across campus as if there wasn’t a crisis occurring in our own backyard. At times, it felt like we lived in two different worlds: one that was hurting from being unjustly attacked, and one that was comfortably unconcerned.
To this day, every time I log on to social media and see that a new name has been hashtagged in memoriam, my heart hurts. These men look like my cousins, my uncles, my best friends. They look like all the people in my life that I have ever loved. Seeing these familiar faces in pain on the news — whether through the shaky lens of a bystander’s cell phone or the crackling recording of a police dashboard camera — only makes my own pain worse. I cannot count how many tears I’ve held back after seeing innocent people bleed out in the street, as if the space they took up in this world didn’t matter.
Despite how painful it is to watch these incidents, the footage released from police body cameras and dashboard cameras helps paint a picture of a victim’s last, tumultuous moments. When there is evidence of a police shooting that appears to have involved an unjust or excessive use of force, the public can rightfully express their questions, concerns, and frustrations — and in turn use this footage to hold their law enforcement officers accountable for failing to protect and serve American citizens and honor their rights.
Yet on July 11, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill into law that seals police videos from the public (including citizens recorded in the video) unless a court order is obtained. This means that the media, social justice organizations, and even victims’ families have to go through extensive measures to view the footage — and even then they can still be denied. The American Civil Liberties Union called the bill shameful, and for good reason: Police officers are public servants, and their interactions with the public should not be hidden. While the governor claims that sealing footage will promote trust between the community and the police who serve it, this bill actually creates “forced trust,” and will create unrest instead of cooperation. Governor McCrory also said the bill will protect police, but seems to remain hesitant to express a desire to protect citizens, too.
But McCrory has faced public backlash for his actions. After the September 20 shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, violent protests erupted throughout the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where McCrory was formerly mayor. The police department initially justified the shooting, but refused to release police video. After facing pressure from the community and by request of the family, however, the police finally released the footage, which failed to support the account police had initially given. Crucially, while there were some violent protests right after Scott’s death, once the footage became public the protests reportedly became far more peaceful, which serves as evidence that dashboard camera and body camera videos should be public record.
This is exactly why I started a petition to make police videos public record in North Carolina. Thousands have signed, but that’s still not enough, because on October 1, McCrory’s bill went into effect: Police videos officially became sealed in North Carolina. This means that if another person falls victim to police violence, their story could be buried and left unsolved. The law also sends the message to other states that they can do the same thing and turn a deaf ear to this searing problem.
We are at a crucial moment in our nation’s history. Shootings like Scott’s and others have happened in our nation for many decades, but only recently have cell phone and police footage captured images of the violence and spread them all over the world. Without this police footage, however, the only voices our communities hear are those of the police rather than the victims. If we don’t tackle police brutality head-on, it will continue to haunt us.
What’s more, we must solve this together — not behind closed doors. We need to remind our local senators and congressmen that transparency and accountability are vital within our communities, and that everyone’s voice matters — including the voices in the videos of citizens who no longer have the ability to tell their own stories. As we’ve seen many times already, without accountability to the people they serve, police departments can act unjustly without consequences. I hope you’ll join us in making our streets safer and our police departments accountable.
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