Cell-Phone Videos Increasingly Providing Extra Eye On Crime

Apr 13, 2015

Cell phone video taken by a passerby in South Carolina may have revealed the truth about the recent shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.

Video of the recent shooting comes after a long line of police involved shootings of unarmed black men across the country. How, exactly, is cell phone videos factoring into the debate?

The shooting of Walter Scott of South Carolina shows he was shot in the back by police officer Michael Slager five times. 

Warning: The following video contains graphic and disturbing content.

Slager said he feared for his life after Scott took his stun gun. But the video showed what appeared to be Slager dropping the stun gun near Scott’s lifeless body. Police officials in North Charleston quickly arrested Slager on murder charges and now require all police officers to wear body cameras.

FOP Response

Jay McDonald heads the 25,000-member Ohio Fraternal Order of Police. He says the prevalence of cell phone cameras will not have a direct effect on the behavior of police officers.

“Officers by and large, 99.9 percent of the time do the right thing regardless of whether they think there is a tape or not," McDonald said. "And I think that that is overwhelmingly true.”

McDonald says, in the future, he will not tell his officers to watch their step because their actions might be caught on tape.

“No, no. We tell our membership and our membership is expected to do the right thing all the time. Our membership is sworn law enforcement officers," McDonald said. "They’re sworn to uphold the law.”

The President's Task Force

Tracey Meares is a professor at Yale Law who served on the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The group was formed after the shooting of Michael Brown last summer in Ferguson, Missouri.

She agrees with Jay McDonald that it might be just a few police officers who cause the most serious problems. But she says solutions to tensions between police and minority neighborhoods they serve have more to do with the culture of policing than documenting police behavior.

“There is a culture that makes it easier for a few people to engage in some very extreme behavior,” Meares said.

Meares says the president’s task force recommended a change in the culture of police departments nationwide not just in cities where extreme police behavior has occurred.

“We recommended that law enforcement culture embrace a ‘guardian’ mindset to build public trust and legitimacy," Meares said. "That’s, that’s necessary.”

Still, Meares says some research shows that the presence of cell phone cameras can affect how police behave.

“I think there some evidence that cameras, whether they are cellphones or body worn cameras actually change the behaviors of police officers,” Meares said.

Cell Phone Evidence

The FOP’s Jay McDonald doesn’t see it quite that way. But, he says, he has no problem with police officers being taped.

“Quite frankly when they videotape, they’re gathering evidence that is, like I said in the vast majority of times, used to provide evidence that is used to convict criminals,” McDonald said.

Like President Obama, Governor Kasich has also appointed a task force to study police policies and practices in Ohio. Its recommendations are due on the governor’s desk by the end of April.