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Facebook offers a new way to bear witness to violence in America

Cellphone videos have increasingly been used to hold police to account. But the ability to livestream and share video of violence in real time is now being described as a watershed moment for video evidence.

by Rachel Browne
Jul 8 2016, 4:10pm

Uno screenshot tratto dal livestreaming su Facebook.

After Philando Castile was shot dead in his car by police in Minnesota on Wednesday, his girlfriend took out her phone and broadcast what happened next on Facebook Live. The woman, Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds, described the sequence of events that led to the shooting and showed Castile covered in blood.

"The officer just shot him in his arm," Reynolds said, recalling how the officer pulled them over for a busted taillight and then shot Castile, a 32-year-old black man who worked as a school cafeteria supervisor, as he reached for his license and registration. Castile also told police he had a pistol in the vehicle, Reynolds said, noting that he said he was licensed to carry the weapon.

More than 4 million people watched the 10-minute video, which was briefly taken down by Facebook but later re-published. It's believed to be the first time the immediate aftermath of a police shooting has been streamed live online.

The incident came just one day after another black man, Alton Sterling, was shot dead by two police officers outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Footage of that shooting was also captured on camera, quickly posted to YouTube, and viewed millions of times.

Then on Thursday night, Dallas man Michael Kevin Bautista used Facebook to livestream the shootings that left five police officers dead during a protest against the deaths of Castile and Sterling. That video, which shows gunfire being exchanged among officers and a gunman, has now been viewed over 3 million times.

'This ability to livestream video could be a huge change in terms of how the public is involved in these sorts of incidents.'

Cellphone videos have increasingly been used as a powerful tool for police accountability and to deter misconduct. But the ability to livestream and share video of violence in real time is now being described as a watershed moment for video evidence. It has also renewed a debate over what's at stake when raw footage of violence is released in realtime.

"This ability to livestream video could be a huge change in terms of how the public is involved in these sorts of incidents," said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of Southern California who researches the use of police body cameras.

"Livestreaming could change how police interact with civilians and public interacts with officers on scene," said Stoughton, a former police officer himself. "We get to watch and witness these things as they are happening."

Benjamin Burroughs, a media professor at the University of Nevada, told USA Today that livestreaming allows viewers to feel like they're directly involved in the event.

"The viewing public feels like they are experiencing the events without a media filter. The immediacy can be incredibly emotional as distance feels like it is being erased," said Burroughs. He added, however, that such videos could become "a kind of voyeurism" and fuel "click-bait journalism," rather than provide an opportunity to discuss meaningful reform of the criminal justice system.

Related: Watch raw footage of the fatal Dallas shooting as it unfolded

Stoughton said that while livestreaming police confrontations with the public can increase transparency and can give people quicker access to information, it raises a host of new concerns for the legal process.

"Who would then be subpoenaed as a witness in these cases? Everyone who commented?" he asked. "And looking past the investigative stage, it's going to be a huge challenge for police agencies who are trying not to jeopardize the integrity of an investigation, and also the way they communicate with the public after incidents."

Even when police are equipped with body cameras, it doesn't mean the technology will be used as intended. In the Minnesota shooting, the officer wasn't outfitted with a camera, but there was a dashcam in his vehicle. In Baton Rouge, police officials said the officers were wearing body cameras, but they came loose as police pinned Sterling to the ground.The footage has not yet been released to the public, but the Department of Justice is reportedly reviewing it.

A number of police forces in Minnesota have purchased body cameras. In May, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed a law that outlines exactly how and when state police forces can use body cams, but does not make the devices mandatory. The officers in Castile's case, from the St. Anthony Police Department, do not yet use body cameras. Without Reynolds' Facebook broadcast, the altercation likely would have never been committed to film.

Despite the ubiquity of camera-equipped cellphones, police still often attempt to block members of the public from filming them. A new lawsuit filed this week against New York City and the New York Police Department alleges that NYPD officers routinely interfere with people's right to video record public police activity by taking away their phones, blocking them, and arresting or threatening them.

Related: Reports Suggest Body Cameras Are Only Effective When Cops Can't Turn Them Off

Stoughton warned that no evidence is perfect, and we shouldn't expect more from civilian video or livestreaming than we do from other forms of evidence.

"Very often we have a tendency to assume that video is going to be more comprehensive and neutral and accurate than other forms of evidence and video is not necessarily any of those things," he said. "It will be important to retain a healthy commitment to critical thinking when reviewing video evidence."

He predicted there will likely be more and more instances where Facebook Live is used to capture police interactions with the community.

"This will be another way police will be put in the spotlight," he said, "but more also video means examples for people to talk and argue about what they saw or didn't see."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne