Night after night, Americans peacefully exercising their Constitutionally-protected rights are being brutalized by police in cities and towns across the country. Millions of people have watched phone-shot videos of cops pushing down protesters, shooting them with rubber bullets and pepper spray balls, and kicking them over. We see it happening with our own eyes, but police and elected leaders are telling us not to believe what we’re seeing:
- In Buffalo, police said a 75-year-old-man—who was walking alone doing nothing when he was pushed over by a cop, hit his head on cement, started bleeding from his ears, and was ignored by a group of a dozen officers—“tripped and fell.”
- In Manhattan, the New York Police Department said that an essential delivery worker who was arrested for the crime of doing his job after curfew could have been lying about his job.
- In DC, Park Police said that an Australian media crew that was sitting down and filming a protest when they were bashed with riot shields “were not readily distinguishable from violent protesters.”
- In Erie, Pennsylvania, police pepper sprayed a woman who was sitting down. She covers her eyes with both of her arms. A cop then kicks her in the face.
- In Los Angeles, the LAPD shot a homeless man in a wheelchair in the face with a rubber bullet. A photo of the man's bloodied face has gone viral; the LAPD has declined to comment.
These are just a few of the incidents I remember seeing off the top of my head, that have been seared into my brain as I and others have watched, horrified.
Bill De Blasio, the man who is nominally in charge of the NYPD, which has more officers than many European militaries have soldiers, has repeatedly told the public that we should not take these photos and videos at face value, though they have all been corroborated by contemporaneous eyewitnesses. Last weekend, he told us that two cop SUVs bulldozed into a group of unarmed protesters because they were “surrounded.” Footage from above shows that either SUV could have easily backed up. This line—that we cannot believe what we see—is one that de Blasio has repeated often.
“Sometimes what we see with our own eyes is the whole story. Sometimes what we see with our own eyes, it’s not the whole story, if you see a video,” de Blasio told WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer Friday morning. “The cell phone video picks up one piece of the equation but sometimes there is another problem or [context that you can’t see].”
"Observers from City Hall saw a different reality than you were seeing," de Blasio said in a different interview Friday morning. De Blasio nor the NYPD have provided any mitigating evidence for any of the cases of police brutality caught on tape, nor have they said what their "reality" is.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, has simply said that people who ask him straightforward questions about police behavior, based on video evidence, are asking biased, “offensive,” and “incendiary” questions: “It’s not a fact. It’s not even an opinion,” Cuomo said to a reporter who asked why NYPD officers bludgeoned peaceful protesters with batons, suggesting that police are the real victims here. “That is a hyper partisan political attack … they don’t do that.”
Without ever-present cell phone cameras, we are unlikely to have had murder charges filed against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, and video evidence has been integral to holding police accountable in other cases as well. But justice, accountability, and even a basic acceptance of the truth has remained elusive on a large scale, even with video evidence.
This pervasive denial of reality has exposed one of the most popular and widely suggest police reforms, body cameras, as a bad faith compromise. For years, our leaders told us that always-on video surveillance of police would stop police brutality as a concession to the original Black Lives Matter movement.
Seven years ago, Axon, which makes Tasers, introduced its first police body camera. The introduction of these cameras, and the widespread adoption of them nationwide after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in 2014, was nominally supposed to usher in a new era of police transparency and accountability. In 2015, the Obama administration spent $23 million to help police departments purchase them for their officers. Advocates said that always-on video and audio would show the public what happened before, during, and after violent interactions between police and people, and the psychological effects of always being filmed would cause police to change their behavior.
None of that has actually happened. As civil liberties experts had warned all along, police body cameras have been turned into just another surveillance device as cops explore ways to embed facial recognition on the cameras. There are rarely consequences for cops who turn off or block body cameras during incidents with the public. The transparency did not come, either—body camera footage is often exempted from public records laws, and police departments often refuse to release footage that does not explicitly exonerate their cops. Worst of all, the expected psychological effects didn’t come to pass. Studies have shown that wearing a body camera does not reduce the use of force or make citizen interactions with police any safer.
The implicit argument behind body cameras was that if only the authorities—police commanders, prosecutors, judges, politicians—had some way of seeing what victims of police violence alleged, they would be able to do something about it. But the last week has proven what skeptics argued all along: The issue was never that the authorities couldn’t see police misconduct. The issue is that they never want to, and they remain just as willing to lie in the face of evidence we've all seen with our own eyes. It turns out cops don’t care if they’re being filmed, and with the people in power willing to lie for them, why would they?