Although the death of Walter Scott at the hands of Officer Michael Slager has effectively faded from the national conscience, what should never be ignored is the effect of the filming of Scott’s death had on handing Slager a murder charge. By most accounts, Slager’s reaction to the shooting—in which the officer laughed after Scott’s brutal killing—would not have had the same impact on the public, simply because, without a video record, it wouldn't have existed. Scott’s death would have entered the public record without comment, just another dead unarmed black man.
Our complacency in cases of police brutality is a sad indication of overwhelming trust our system—and the public—places in the hands of police officers. And it’s this trust judges and grand juries have in police that has made citizen journalism such an important tool in fighting against such instances.
In a satirical segment on The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore's program highlighted the fact that recording police interactions is an increasingly necessary part of interacting with law enforcement. The dangers of doing so, however, can often make the act of hitting record on your smartphone seem to daunting or confrontational—cops, after all, are the guys with the guns.
But it’s the intimidating nature of interactions with police that makes it all the more necessary to arm each citizen with the knowledge of not just their own rightsbut of how to record police activity without violating the law or putting themselves in a situation where their civil liberties might be abused.
Feidin Santana, the man who filmed the death of Walter Scott, initially was going to withhold the footage from investigators. “I thought about just erasing the video and getting out of the community,” Santana told MSNBC. Santana’s fear is far from mere paranoia: Police across the country have a habit of punishing those who would testify or provide evidence against police. Ramsey Orta, who filmed the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD last summer, spent five months in Riker’s Island after coroners found Garner’s death to be a homicide (though a grand jury decided against charges for the officer who killed Garner).
Meanwhile, the city of Orlando, Fla., was forced to pay out $15,000 to a man wrongfully jailed for recording police. In Massachusetts, a woman was charged with illegal wiretapping for recording her own arrest.
Police across the country have a habit of punishing those who would testify or provide evidence against police.
And these instances do not even consider the many reports of police destroying smartphones and cameras pointed at them. Such decimation of a right confirmed as protected by the First Amendment means, for reasons of practicality, the average person should understand both the risks of filming police and the ways to avoid those risks.
The single best piece of advice is to do your best to stay completely out of the officers’ way, no matter what they’re doing. (As previously mentioned, they have weapons and you don't.) The most common complaint officers give when justifying antagonism towards people filming them is it creates “interference” between the police and whatever situation they’ve been called to. This makes complete sense: If you’re an officer and you’re responding to a call that might even be putting your own safety at risk, the last thing you want is some liberal arts major shoving an iPhone in your face.
In this way, Feidin Santana is the model citizen journalist. He witnessed a dispute brewing between an officer and a citizen and began recording, just in time to capture the eight shots that rightfully incriminate Officer Slager. Santana stays completely out of the way, never calling out to the officers or interfering with their actions, even though he just witnessed something unqualifiedly errant and abhorrent. In fact, the footage seems to barely indicate the officers even realize Santana exists on the scene. This stealth nature should be the goal of any would-be citizen journalist.
Not all police will be so comfortable ignoring a camera that is rather intrinsically pointed at them as a tool of criticism. As has often been the case, you could face arrest or confiscation—even destruction—of your device (and, therefore, the evidence of any wrongdoing that might be taking place).
Last month in South Gate (a suburb of Los Angeles), a woman began filming a U.S. Marshall operation when one officer ran up to her and, as video from a different angle shows, obliterated her phone with his bare hands. Luckily, the officer failed to destroy the SD card within the phone that contained her video.
Situations like these put citizen journalists in a drastically unfair position—when the officer you're recording question is demanding you stop collecting evidence of their wrongdoing or blocking your right to do so. But civil rights expert after civil rights expert agrees that, if an officer orders you to stop recording, state you’re complying with his request but under protest. You can make your disdain for what they’re demanding known without being disrespectful or further endangering yourself or your property.
The single best piece of advice is to do your best to stay completely out of the officers’ way, no matter what they’re doing.
It comes down to a core question: Are you willing to be detained and even have your property destroyed in the name of defending your rights? Many people aren’t, which isn’t necessarily a cowardly position. Few people are ready to be a hero of the common man while going about their day.
But if you do choose to engage a situation by recording it, knowing how to do so properly is the best way to not only protect yourself and your rights but help in what could possibly be a serious incident of police wrongdoing, as it was for Feiden Santana and Ramsay Orta. Acting haphazardly when recording police can only make you less safe—and could actually hurt the fight against police abuse nationwide.
Ben Branstetter is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. He attended Pennsylvania State University and currently lives in Central Pennsylvania.