Are Cameras Making Police and Civilians More Accountable?

Most of us have had the experience of whipping out our smartphones to capture an “out-of-the-ordinary” event in public to share on Facebook or YouTube.   A global audience comes built in with video-sharing platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo, that is, if you can deliver what people like.

And boy, do humans love the weird and abnormal: the moose holding up three lanes of traffic. The celebrity riding the subway.  The policeman offering winter boots to a homeless man.

Candid smartphone videos like these can catch fire on YouTube, breaking the 1 million views barrier in a relatively short amount of time.

But not everything uploaded to YouTube by average Joes is funny; indeed, some of it is downright inciting and provocative.  And yet these videos too fit the weird and abnormal bill that can generate views in the millions.

UAA Assistant Professor Doug Kelly in Department of Journalism and Public Communication is well aware of this contemporary phenomenon.  The second-year instructor at UAA received his doctorate in mass communication and history at the University of Maine.

Having researched the history of photographic technology, Kelly asked a simple, but uncommonly heard question: “Are all these cameras good for us?”

Our culture today is saturated with cameras of all kinds: surveillance, street, and especially smartphone.

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“It wasn’t just I’m deciding to carry a separate camera around, but I’m carrying a device that has a camera in it and this device is with me every minute of the day,” said Kelly.

But as with any big question, he needed to break it up into smaller ones if he ever wanted to answer the big one.  With some help from his advisor, he turned his attention to what he refers to as the “lowest-level, highest stakes” situation in which cameras can play a vital role: police-civilian interactions.  After all, sworn officers have the authority to use lethal force on a suspect who they believe is putting someone else’s life, or their own, in danger.

Professor Kelly explains the significance of video in such incidents, “The accountability would be…not just a witness who said, ‘I saw this;’ but here is a piece of evidence in the digital file, the image or the video clip of what the sworn officer did.”

So as part of his doctorate work, Professor Kelly examined 14 cases of police-civilian interactions that resulted in some kind of civil suit.  The study was limited in scope to American public space between the years of 2005-2010.  Kelly said the timing of the cases was a critical component of the study.

“One of the important factors is not just there is a camera recording (the event).  That was common before 2005,” said Kelly.  “But in 2005, that was a watershed date that now we have shared video online in an open, publicly-accessible platform.”

Hello YouTube.

This single tool made it possible for civilians to share video online without the threat of the police suppressing or destroying it.  Previously, if police saw a bystander filming a scuffle, they would try to confiscate the equipment or demand that it was deleted immediately.

The UAA professor used only publicly-accessible documents in his research.  He said this would allow anyone wishing to fact-check his work the ability to do so.  Kelly used such documents as court files, YouTube videos, newspaper articles and local news broadcasts to collect his information.  All together, Kelly believes he looked at over 4,000 documents from start to finish.

Of the 14 cases he looked at, some were of cases in which no video file existed.  And of the ones where video file did exist, he looked at times when the video was not made public.

One of the emergent theories Professor Kelly made pertained to the settlements in the civil cases. He found the amount of money a plaintiff receives as settlement is heavily dependent on whether there is online video or not. In every all the cases he looked at, there is a minimum of a fourfold increase in compensation when an online video was available versus not.  In the case of the shooting of Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009, the settlement was in the millions.  The incident was shot from several vantage points in a subway station and two years ago was made into the movie, “Fruitvale Station.”

Kelly said that the narrative is still being written. He has noticed police are already treating suspect altercations differently following the Ferguson protests.

“Now we are seeing, almost on a weekly basis, where a sworn officer, a police officer, or a sheriff’s deputy is caught on video behaving unprofessionally and they are almost immediately suspended, fired, or charged criminally and they are actually in jail,” said Kelly. “That is brand new, that is something that as of the end of my research has not happened, and I would point directly to Ferguson … in enforcing that change.”

Before the Michael Brown shooting, the court cases could drag on for years, even with video, according to Kelly.

But just don’t think the goal of Kelly’s research was to shame police. In one of the cases, the video actually absolved a police officer’s supposed blunder.

“Whether you are a civilian and someone did something they shouldn’t have done to you, or you are a cop and doing what you are supposed to do – the video is your friend.”