Caught on tape: Recent footage of police activities ignites debate over use of video

·Crime Contributor
North Charleston police officer Michael Slager (R) is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, South Carolina taken April 4, 2015. REUTERS/HANDOUT via Reuters

In the 24 years since the videotape showing Rodney King’s vicious beating by police officers became public, the debate about the use of taped evidence seems to be far from resolved.

There are unresolved questions about the value of videotaped evidence of police activities and also tapes taken by police themselves through dash and body cameras.

King was an American taxi driver who became nationally known after being beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers following a high-speed car chase on March 3, 1991.

Polls at the time suggested 90 per cent of L.A. residents believed the tape showed police used excessive force, but a jury concluded the video alone wasn’t enough to convict the officers, resulting in rioting and dozens of deaths. A second trial would see two officers convicted and sent to prison.

Fast forward to present day and debates continue to rage about the use of video, especially with the volumes of materials on social media. One question is context – can you tell the whole truth about an incident with only part of a story.

Some recent cases, including video of a police shooting of a youth on a Toronto streetcar in 2013 resulted in criminal charges against a police officer.

For their part, many police departments in the U.S. have been using video evidence from dash cameras for decades to add visual evidence for traffic stops and other cases. Many others are now experimenting with, or implementing, the use of body mounted cameras to show the officer’s point-of-view.

How Canadian police are using video

In Canada, some police forces, like Montreal and Calgary, are in the planning stages for body cameras and declined to answer written questions from Yahoo Canada News about the use of cameras.

A spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police says video is just one piece of the puzzle.

“Video evidence provides only a component of the evidence in an overall criminal investigation,” says Staff Sgt Julie Gagnon.

“Video alone cannot solve crime. Consequently, a calculation of the value of video would have to be weighed against other evidence at the crime scene as well as interviews conducted within the overall investigation,” Gagnon tells Yahoo Canada News.

Gagnon points out that body worn video camera equipment and technology is evolving rapidly.

“The RCMP continually reviews its policies, procedures and equipment to ensure it is using the most effective practices in law enforcement,” she said.

“This includes researching, and pilot testing new technologies. Our objective is to provide our front line officers with tools that are consistent with global changes in technology and social media and enhance their ability to respond to this new reality while ensuring both officer and public safety. “

A spokesperson for Halifax Regional Police says his force is closely monitoring those trials.

“We are observing trials being conducted at other police services but we have no plans to start using them in Halifax at this time,” says Public Information Officer Const. Pierre Bourdages.

“Any video is always helpful but it is only one part of an investigation. You are right to say that a video sometimes does not tell the entire story. “

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police provided a link to a YouTube video which shows things aren’t always what they appear to be.

The video, entitled Honest Cops, has been viewed 2.2 million times. It shows a struggle involving a Hamilton, Ont., police officer and a screaming woman. Bystanders videotaping the event openly question the police and express support for the woman as police try to stop her struggling to take her into custody. In the end, the officer explains what happened and how the woman became hysterical after being told she was being arrested for a domestic violence. Eventually the woman stops screaming and resisting and is arrested. Clearly, the context helps explain the situation.

That kind of context is something police hope to achieve through body cameras, which in the case of a rookie Ohio police officer, who shows restraint while facing a charging murder suspect who repeatedly yells “shoot me.”

String of incidents in the U.S.

In the U.S., a number of recent cases involving police being videotaped by bystanders are prominent in the news.

The include the shooting of Walter Scott, a black man, who was shot in the back as he fled. The white police officer, who had stopped Scott for a traffic violation, has been charged with murder.

Another prominent case involves the arrest of a Baltimore man, who later died of a spinal injury after being taken into custody.

Another recent video shows Eric Garner, who died after New York City police put him in a chokehold while trying to arrest him.

Further complicating these cases is that they involved white police officers killing unarmed black men, which has sparked protests in a number of cities.

A recent poll suggests most Americans don’t believe the widespread use of smartphone cameras will improve police behaviour. In fact, the Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week suggested people think it has done little to change police conduct so far.

Among respondents, 56 per cent said police were not behaving better so far because they could be caught on video, the poll said.

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