One day historians will look back on this period in American life, in which something like a sea opened up to reveal profound problems between police and citizens, and they will attribute the parting of the murk to the mass marketing of small video cameras. The cameras have revealed what most people refused to believe. They empowered citizens. They forced the country into a painful but necessary self-examination.
It seems like an obvious, almost mundane thing to say, but video technology in the hands of citizens might be the single most important social force in the country today.
Key words: In the hands of citizens.
Police dash-cams, body cams and Taser cams will play a role in the future, but we're only going to see more of those recording devices because of cell phone cameras in the hands of citizens — not police. That's what's driving all this.
That's my takeaway from the scandalous mess in Chicago that resulted Tuesday in the firing of that city's police commissioner by a mayor who could be next to go.
Had a citizen been able to capture on video the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014, and had that citizen chosen to share it with the world via social media, Chicago police would have been forced to quickly investigate the teenager's death. The public would have insisted on it. The police officer who allegedly shot McDonald 16 times might have been charged with his death before the end of 2014.
Instead, what happened?
The only video of McDonald's death was from a police dash-cam. For most of the last year, the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fought to keep it from being made public. City officials argued — as police always argue — that releasing it could interfere with state and federal investigations into the shooting. It's commonly claimed that releasing videos might influence witness accounts of incidents; instead of describing events as they saw them, witnesses might give accounts that conform to what they see in videos.
It's a reasonable argument, but for a limited time and a limited time only. Not for a year.
Ultimately, a Cook County judge forced Emanuel to release the video. When that happened last week, along with the filing of first-degree murder charges against the cop who allegedly shot McDonald, it looked as if the mayor and a complicit police commissioner had been engaged in a coverup.
Thirteen months to file first-degree murder charges against a cop who shot a teenager 16 times in 14 seconds?
Contrast the Chicago story with what happened in Baltimore with the arrest and death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody. Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on April 12. Within a couple of days, images of Gray in a hospital bed and a video of his arrest and placement in a police van were all over social media. In the video, captured by a citizen with a cell phone, Gray was heard to cry out in pain as police officers led him to the van.
Gray died a week later, on April 19. Police and prosecutors started an investigation almost immediately. In particular, a police task force carried out what appears to have been a comprehensive investigation. The Maryland medical examiner declared Gray's death a homicide on April 30.
On May 1, the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office charged six police officers in connection with Gray's arrest and death. One of them, Officer William G. Porter, is on trial this week in Baltimore Circuit Court.
That's less than three weeks from Gray's injury to the arrests of the six police officers.
If all of that sounds hasty, maybe it was. It remains to be seen if Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her staff really have enough evidence to convict the officers. I guess we'll know when we hear the state's case against Porter.
But, my point is, if not for the citizen's video of Gray's arrest, and a second video that surfaced a short time later, it's likely none of this would have happened as quickly as it did. It's possible no charges would have been filed against police officers because there isn't much of a history of that in Baltimore, or anywhere else for that matter.
Look at Chicago. Sixteen shots in 14 seconds — and 13 months to bring murder charges against a cop.
The good thing is that all the cell phone cameras have forced Baltimore and other cities and counties to outfit police officers with body cameras. Indeed, that's an advance.
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Still, the big test will come when there's a questionable shooting or some other dubious use of force — a "Chicago moment." That's when we'll see how much transparency the police and city officials have. In the meantime, citizens should keep their cameras handy.