Prosecutors acted quickly when a bystander brought forward a video that showed a cop had been lying about the circumstances of his use of force that cost a man his life. But if it weren’t for that video, would this have just been another drop in the bucket?

Photo Credit: juicyrai cc
Photo Credit: juicyrai cc

The whole narrative around Walter Scott’s death very well could’ve been more of the same if it weren’t for the video footage from a civilian bystander with a cell phone that completely discredited Officer Michael Slager’s version of events. With the ever-increasing rise of mobile-technology video cameras are more available than ever it could mean a new era of police accountability.

The video shows Slager firing eight shots into the back of Scott as he ran away from the scene of a tussle between himself and Slager, after being pulled over for a broken taillight. After handcuffing a dying Scott, Slager walks back to the scene of the fight to pick up an object (widely assumed to be the taser he claimed in his report Scott had taken from him) then drops that object by Scott’s body.

In terms of damning evidence, you can’t get much more incriminating. Worse still, The New Republic notes that this isn’t wholly unusual:

Police perjury, [Vanderbilt law professor Christopher] Slobogin argues, occurs because “police think they can get away with it. Police are seldom made to pay for their lying.” Not just prosecutors but even many judges see themselves as sharing a common set of goals with the police of making sure the guilty get punished. Working in a shared enterprise, they are loath to challenge police perjury. “Prosecutors put up with perjury because they need a good working relationship with the police to make their cases,” Slobogin notes.

…If officer Slager did fabricate his incident report in the Scott killing, he wasn’t being a bad apple but rather adhering to a dishonesty that is all too common in American police forces. Such is the credence given to police reporting that Slager’s rendition of events was only overturned by the compelling counter-narrative offered by the video, shot by a civilian onlooker.

As it would seem the case is, unfortunately, one drop in a vast ocean. And though there are varying accounts of how prevalent the problem is—The New York Times states that officer use of force has been “low for many years”, but ProPublica puts young black males at 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts—Scott’s death comes during a year of increased attention to excessive use of force by police officers towards people of color, and black men in particular.

What statistics do show is that when a police officer is being recorded there’s a sharp decline in reports of force—as much 60 percent in Rialto, Cal. Complaints against officers there also dropped 88 percent. Though President Obama has made a push for body cameras for police, putting $75 million in federal funds towards paying for 50,000 body cameras, but that’s only a fraction of the 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers serving today.

But as of last year, 90 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and 60 percent of those are smartphones. That means that 90 percent of Americans are walking around with a video camera in their pocket. And Chuck Ramsay of Minnesota DWI Defense blog thinks that’s a great thing:

That said, respect will never, ever equal blind faith or a failure to be skeptical. Today, I am grateful not only for the law enforcement agents who are out there every day keeping our free society as safe as it can be . . . but also for the individuals who are using advances in technology to make sure that they can step up and “watch the watchers” so that those who protect us don’t abuse their power. It was a simply bystander in South Carolina that guaranteed that Michael T. Slager will face justice, and likely be held accountable for the murder of an unarmed man. That man, Walter L. Scott fled the scene of a traffic stop gone awry and ended up dead.

This isn’t the first time an officer has committed a crime, and it won’t be the last. But with the advent of smart phones, the video is rolling everywhere, which may cause certain corrupt officers to think twice before committing a crime, similar to the theory that regular police patrols will deter corrupt citizens from committing crimes.

Of course there are roadblocks there as well. Just recently, Texas has attempted to limit civilians’ efforts to film the police. But more than that, it happens on a day-to-day basis—just run a Youtube search for ‘police threaten man filming’ and you’ll find countless examples. This includes one featuring former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, maybe the name most associated with the controversy around office accountability.

The thing is, citizens do have a First Amendment right to film the police in all but the most unique circumstances. A federal appeals court ruling last year said as much, and so did the Department of Justice in a letter to attorneys for the Baltimore Police Department:

Policies should affirmatively set forth the contours of individuals’ First Amendment right to observe and record police officers engaged in the public discharge of their duties. Recording governmental officers engaged in public duties is a form of speech through which private individuals may gather and disseminate information of public concern, including the conduct of law enforcement officers.

Though, as cases like Rodney King’s and Eric Garner’s it’s clear that even video footages of force isn’t the conclusive evidence it might otherwise be. Still, it’s imperative that while lawmakers and police forces work to figure out the issues around body cameras, citizens empowered to watch the watchers should continue be allowed to exercise their right to do so.

As the dialogue around Walter Scott’s death continues to grow, it’s undeniable that the video has revealed that there is a darker side to policing that necessitates more oversight and more conversation around how to hold those in power accountable. It may not be perfect, but cell phone cameras will  provide a more neutral account. And even better? They’re everywhere.