Alton Sterling's Killing Shows How Important It Is to Film Cops

Without diligent bystanders and their phones, we'd never know about the most heinous police shootings of the past few years.
July 7, 2016, 2:32pm

Still from the video of Alton Sterling's shooting. Photo by Arthur Reed via AP

"Thank God for Apple, thank God for Google, thank God for Microsoft!"

Those were the words of attorney Edmond Jordan, talking about Alton Sterling's death at a press conference in Baton Rouge on Wednesday. Sterling has achieved the most tragic kind of posthumous fame since being killed a day earlier, his name joining a macabre catechism of other black Americans whose lives were ended by police for little or no reason. He was killed while the cops held him down on the pavement of a convenience store parking lot, shot multiple times at point-blank range after being tackled.

The only way we know this, the only reason Alton Sterling's death trended on Twitter and spread around the world, is because the cops pinning him down were filmed by someone in a nearby car. The officers were wearing body cameras, but those cameras apparently got jogged loose in the struggle, and what footage they did produce has not been made public—at least not yet. The convenience store surveillance cameras may have captured the incident, too, but they were confiscated by the police. There's also dash-cam video, but if it reveals anything, only the authorities know what. (On Wednesday, a second, more graphic, bystander video was obtained by the Advocate.)

This is standard operating procedure for cops across America: When under fire, they close ranks and prevent any information, including videos, from seeing the light of day. There may be good reasons for police to want footage of questionable encounters to stay under wraps, but too often, it looks like they're simply trying to duck consequences for what can only be labeled crimes. Case in point: The 2014 shooting by Chicago police of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, which the cops claimed was prompted by the black teen "lunging" with a knife—until a dash-cam video the authorities had been suppressing was forced into the public eye by a judge, revealing that at the moment McDonald had been shot, he wasn't even walking toward the police.

Video evidence can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and it is rarely as conclusive as we might like to think. But it's better by far than the accounts of officers who may misremember particularly heated moments or—there's no nice way to say this—occasionally lie to save their own skins after killing someone.

The sharing and re-sharing of these videos can seem ghoulish or voyeuristic at times, but they're often the best account we have of these incidents. Without video, Walter Scott's killer likely wouldn't have been charged with murder. Without video, we might not know Eric Garner was telling NYPD cops, "I can't breathe!" up until the moment he passed out from the chokehold that killed him.

Tech companies like to blather about how they're changing the world for the better, but smartphones and the internet really have changed the world, mostly by accident, and in some ways for good. Thanks to the ubiquity of incredibly advanced phones, it's easier than ever to film police and share those videos quickly and anonymously with the entire planet. Officer-mounted body cams have attracted a lot of attention as a way to keep cops from behaving badly, but sometimes those cameras can be turned off, and at other times they fall off at just the wrong moment. The most compelling videos are generally made by bystanders who are quick to whip out their cameras, as was the case with the deaths of Scott, Garner, and Sterling. Steve Jobs surely didn't mean to give his users the best possible tool for policing the police, but that's exactly what the iPhone is.

Generally, courts have ruled that filming the police in public is protected by the First Amendment (especially if you are a professional journalist), but it's not a universally recognized right. In the past, cop-watchers have been charged under wiretapping statutes for filming arrests; one man, Simon Gilk of Boston, sued the police after such an arrest and, with the help of the ACLU, got the First Circuit Appeals Court to affirm the right to record the cops.

Despite that victory, many cops continue to be hostile toward anyone filming them. In May, an NYPD officer pulled his gun on a group of phone-wielding onlookers—and though he was stripped of his gun and badge after the incident, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton denounced the "epidemic" of people filming the cops, as if they were the problem. More worryingly, a pair of separate lawsuits led to a federal judge in Philadelphia ruling in February that there was no First Amendment right to film the police "without any stated purpose of being critical of the government."

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, which is currently appealing that decision, says that that does not mean it's suddenly illegal to record to cops in the state. However, absent a constitutional right, laws can be passed that limit the ability of people to make the sort of video that shed light on Alton Sterling's death. Bills prohibiting the filming of police within 25 or 20 feet have been introduced this year in Texas and Arizona—and though both measures died, it's not hard to envision a tide of reactionary pro-cop sentiment pushing them through somewhere. After all, Louisiana, the state where Sterling was killed, passed a "blue lives matter" law in May that protects law enforcement officers under a hate crimes statute.

Filming the cops shouldn't be necessary. We instinctively want all cops to be trustworthy, just as we want all our friends to be true and every dog to be friendly. But there have been too many high-profile incidents of brutality, too many black bodies riddled with bullets, too many cover-ups, for the public to just assume that officers are in the right when they use their weapons. Increasingly, it seems that the most responsible, civic-minded thing you can do is film any police altercation that has the potential to get out of hand. Not because all cops are evil or prone to brutality—most aren't—but because if something terrible happens, your video may be the only way the perpetrator can be held to account.

In the wake of Sterling's death, the officers involved have insisted they were justified, but their bosses seem less sure—Baton Rouge's police chief said he was "demanding answers," Louisiana's governor said he had a "very serious concern" about the shooting, and everyone is now waiting for the results of a US Department of Justice investigation. That sort of talk doesn't get talked because officials are all of a sudden indignant or irate about police shootings—it emerges because someone had a phone in the right place at the right time and hit "record."

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.