Smartphones tether us to the digital universe. They allow us to take our work wherever we go, to photograph our meals and exchange fleeting videos, and to navigate streets while listening to our favorite music. They’ve also helped catalyze the national discussion on race and law enforcement, fundamentally changing the way journalists report and share news of alleged police abuse.
Such reporting is traditionally an after-the-fact affair. In many cases, it has to be. Journalists rely on information from police reports, eyewitnesses, and potential victims to determine what happened and recreate how it went down. That can often lead to confusion, as was the case with the media narratives of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, MO. In most cases, however, law enforcement’s point of view tends to dominate stories, as eyewitnesses might not be available or willing to talk, and victims—in the most violent cases—might be severely injured or dead.
But smartphone video footage is changing the dynamic in a growing number of instances. From officers pepper-spraying seated Occupy protesters in California to the bloody arrest of a black University of Virginia student outside a bar, journalists have a new lens into alleged police violence toward civilians, and vice versa. Last year, video of the police killing of Staten Island man Eric Garner drew national outrage, also inspiring a rallying cry, “I can’t breathe,” that has helped galvanize protests of the criminal justice system across the country.
It’s unclear whether any of those incidents would have made national headlines had they not been caught on video. And with the Garner case in particular, the footage gave news outlets and their audiences a visceral, real-time depiction of what happened. That helped media escape their reliance on police or witness accounts, also adding shock value. Though the cop who put Garner in the fatal chokehold was not indicted, the video of the killing allowed journalists and viewers to reconsider the legal framework that left him a free man.
A more glaring example came this week in North Charleston, SC, where a smartphone video drastically changed the media narrative around a police killing of an unarmed black man. On Saturday, Officer Michael Slager, who is white, shot and killed Walter Scott after a traffic stop. As with many incidents involving police, The Post and Courier newspaper’s day-one story relied heavily on law enforcement sources to describe the event:
A statement released by North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor said a man ran on foot from the traffic stop and an officer deployed his department-issued Taser in an attempt to stop him.
That did not work, police said, and an altercation ensued as the men struggled over the device. Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.
The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.
It was not immediately clear how many times Scott had been shot or where on his body he was wounded.
With Scott dead and no eyewitnesses to be found, only Scott’s family members were left to question the account. A Post and Courier follow-up on Monday was similarly structured around information from a police report and Slager’s lawyer, describing how the officer chased and tussled with Scott before the shooting:
“When confronted, Officer Slager reached for his Taser—as trained by the department—and then a struggle ensued,” [Slager’s lawyer] said. “The driver tried to overpower Officer Slager in an effort to take his Taser.”
Seconds later, the report added, he radioed that the suspect wrested control of the device. Even with the Taser’s prongs deployed, the device can still be used as a stun gun to temporarily incapacitate someone.
Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon,” his attorney added.
The report indicated that Slager fired multiple times, but it was not specific.
Backup officers did first aid and CPR on Scott until paramedics showed up. But Scott was pronounced dead.
None of this is journalistic malpractice—the newspaper reported information from the sources available to it. After smartphone video of the shooting surfaced on Tuesday, however, The Post and Courier’s narrative changed drastically, and Slager was charged with murder:
Slager has said through his attorney that Scott had wrested his Taser from him during a struggle.
The video appears to show Scott slapping at the officer’s hands as several objects fall to the ground. It’s not clear what the objects are.
Scott starts running away. Wires from Slager’s Taser stretch from Scott’s clothing to the officer’s hands.
With Scott more than 10 feet from Slager, the officer draws his pistol and fires seven times in rapid succession. After a brief pause, the officer fires one last time. Scott’s back bows, and he falls face first to the ground near a tree.
The video goes on to show Slager drop an object that appears to be his Taser next to Scott’s body. He and another officer at the scene don’t perform CPR for the duration of the footage, leaving Scott face-down and handcuffed.
After the video’s publication, what had been a local story drew national headlines overnight. Scott’s alleged murder made the front page of The Washington Post and USAToday on Tuesday, while The New York Times featured multiple frames from the video on A1.
Commentators from both sides of the aisle have since renewed calls for more police body- or dashboard cameras. Such devices indeed helped media and the criminal justice system parse what happened in many instances of alleged brutality, as was the case when the latter captured a police shooting of South Carolina man Sean Groubert last year. In Cleveland, a surveillance camera recorded the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. But police cameras are not mandatory in many jurisdictions, and mounted security cameras are few and far between in most areas.
“When there are no cameras, the advantage goes to the shooter,” Charles C. W. Cooke writes at National Review. “That, I’m afraid, is the inevitable product of a system that privileges the presumption of innocence, and, ultimately, it is an argument for more cameras rather than less justice. Where there are cameras, however, the playing field is leveled.”
That rings true not only in the court system, but also the court of public opinion. Journalists, who operate in the latter, are reliant upon their sources. And in many cases involving alleged police brutality, smartphones may be the best chance to cut through police or eyewitness spin. Cameras, of course, are objective observers.David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.