What You Should Do When You Witness Police Brutality

Bystander intervention is important to hold cops accountable, but it can be dangerous for civilians.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
July 14, 2020, 9:30am
bystander intervention police brutality
Photo by Ariana Drehsler AFP via Getty Images
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When Edmonton resident Joshua Powell decided to film police using what he felt was excessive force while making an arrest at an Edmonton convenience store, he wound up getting charged with obstruction of justice.

According to CBC Edmonton, Powell pulled out his camera and started filming at least six police officers beeline for a customer at a Circle K on May 14, allegedly slamming the man to the ground, tying up his hands and feet, covering his face with a bag, and punching him in the head. Police accused the customer, Jamie-Dean Sauter, of stealing a car but didn't end up laying any charges against him after determining that his licence plate had been replaced with one from a stolen vehicle.


In the video he took of the encounter, Powell is heard saying “that was a bit excessive, as an outside perspective.”

In the clip, officers repeatedly advise Powell to back away and one appears to be trying to obstruct the camera. Powell said the cops also tried to grab his phone and ripped his hoodie over his head.

Powell was arrested, though the obstruction charge against him was stayed following the CBC’s report.

Edmonton police are now investigating how police carried out both arrests.

The story highlights some of the issues that arise when citizens attempt to hold police accountable. We’ve heard about the importance of bystander intervention when someone is being racist in public, or when a perpetrator commits a sexual assault on transit. But these interactions become much more complicated, and can potentially be deadly, when the attackers are armed police officers.

In light of the killing of George Floyd, who died after Minnesota cop Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes—an encounter that was filmed—the public is having a reckoning with police.

Part of that reckoning means bearing witness to police misdeeds, said Ottawa-based criminal lawyer Michael Spratt.

“We’ve seen over the last number of years and certainly over the last number of months that there is a lack of oversight and accountability for our police forces,” said Spratt.

“In that context, I think it becomes more important for members of the public to document and to hold the police accountable. It can be a scary and momentous thing for a normal, law-abiding individual to stop and get involved.”


And, as was the case with Powell, it can result in consequences.

Document from a distance

Toronto-based human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan said if a person witnesses police brutality taking place, the best thing to do is document the interaction as best as they can without interfering with what the officers are doing.

He recommends pulling out a camera and recording the encounter from a safe distance, while narrating what is happening, mentioning details such as “I’m a civilian, I’m just witnessing this, I don’t know who this person is,” to make it clear you’re not involved.

Spratt said if, for example, an officer is kneeling on a person and the person isn’t moving, that would be an important thing to say on video within earshot of the cop.

“It shows that they are ignoring what’s going on and are perhaps indifferent.”

The video could be used as evidence if the incident is investigated, Morgan said.

“If you have a legitimate fear that the person you’re interrogating in the interaction could be seriously injured or killed, I think certainly you should vocalize that loudly to draw attention.”

Try to avoid charges

If a bystander intervenes by distracting the officer or getting too close, they could be charged with obstruction of justice. A person who gets physically involved could be charged with assaulting a police officer.

Morgan said the risk is even higher for bystanders who are racialized, noting that even if an obstruction charge is later dropped, it could result in the loss of job opportunities.


“The level of safety and security is unfortunately often contingent on the body you inhabit,” he saId.

Abby Deshman, criminal justice program director for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said people have a constitutional right—and civic duty—to film police. She said if an officer is deliberately trying to prevent a person from filming, which appeared to be the case with Powell, “they’re interfering with your constitutional rights and that’s a Charter violation.” Similarly, in the U.S., people have a First Amendment right to film police officers who are carrying out their duties.

Deshman said Powell’s situation isn’t the first time she’s heard of a person charged with obstruction, “seemingly in retaliation” to videotaping a police encounter.

Calling 911 might be necessary

Though it may seem counterintuitive, Morgan said in some cases a bystander may want to call 911 and explain that an officer is causing harm to a person.

A recording of the call could be used as evidence, he said, and gives the impression that “this is so serious that other people felt they had to call the police on the police.”

But Morgan said it's a double edged sword, as there's a chance more police could arrive on scene and escalate the violence.

Get identification

Two outreach workers recently told B.C. news outlet The Capital that they witnessed two Victoria police officers dragging a handcuffed man 50 feet. The witnesses, who took photos of the encounter, said they asked the officers for their badge numbers but the cops drove off in response.

Spratt said in most major cities police officers should have their names or badge numbers displayed on their uniforms. However, “in the course of a dynamic situation like that a police officer, whether acting properly or improperly is not required to stop to give you their name.”

Deshman said there have been cases where officers have been disciplined for intentionally obscuring their badge numbers. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in response to Floyd’s death, police officers in New York City and Seattle were photographed with black bands covering their badge numbers.

Deshman said a badge number is very useful when filing a complaint.


“We do know of cases that couldn’t move forward because a person was not able to identify a police officer.”

Wellness checks

Much scrutiny has focused on how police handle wellness checks on people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Canadian police have killed at least five people during wellness checks since April, and all were Black, Indigenous, or people of colour.

Recently, freelance writer Hussein N. Shire penned a piece for the Tyee about how two Montreal police officers showed up to his apartment for a wellness check and barged in, claiming that they’d been informed someone was in his apartment.

“The officers began to make it very clear to me that they would not leave until they had searched my apartment. I was terrified,” Hussein wrote.

He said he repeatedly told the officers he didn’t consent to them being inside his apartment, but one replied “we don’t need a warrant if a life is in danger.”

Deshman said cops must identify themselves and state their reason for approaching someone at their home.

“You don’t have to admit them,” she said. However, she said many people wind up letting officers inside because they don’t realize they can refuse.

She said they can enter a home without a warrant if they believe someone’s life is in danger.

As far as arresting someone who is in crisis, Spratt said police shouldn’t arrest someone who hasn’t committed a criminal offence. However, they may justify it by saying the person was a danger to themselves or others.


“That should be the exception and unfortunately many police officers see it as the rule.”

Deshman said the best course of action is to remain calm and film the encounter or take comprehensive notes. Afterwards, if the interaction was unjustified, pursue legal complaint channels or sue the police.

Police are more likely to press charges or become violent towards people they believe are resisting arrest or being "combative."

Morgan said there are many people who are far better equipped to handle wellness calls, including health care professionals, social workers, community workers, and teachers.

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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.