Mobile Justice: Age of Citizen Journalism
HOW MOBILE TECHNOLOGY IS FUELING THE NEWS CYCLE
The police proceeded to handcuff and arrest the four boys. When Jeylani asked why he was being arrested, the officer answered: “Because I feel like arresting you.”
During an interview with communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota Jana Kooren, the boys, who are of Somali descent, said they felt strongly that they had been racially profiled. “They didn’t feel this would have happened to someone affluent in the suburbs,” said Kooren. “To hear an officer be so viscerally hateful to young black boys who had done nothing wrong is very disheartening.”
As a result of the video, the arrest made national headlines, the Minneapolis Police Department is in the midst of an internal investigation, the offending police officer Rod Webber is on administrative leave, and the Council for Islamic-American Relations has requested that the Justice Department investigate the incident. “People are always more likely to believe you when can they see it,” said Kooren.
This is just one example of how mobile technology can now play a role in every stage of the news cycle, from generating stories to consuming and sharing them. For the first time, mainstream media channels are looking to citizens as sources for breaking stories. In the new landscape of citizen journalism, it’s worth examining the ways in which mobile technology has changed how we learn about the world.
THE POWER OF THE VIDEO CLIP
An unarmed black man is killed at the hands of a white police officer—this is an uncomfortably familiar story in the United States. Debra Sanchez, director of marketing for the ACLU, said these stories are in the public eye due to the ubiquity of smartphones. “People of color take the brunt of police brutality,” she said. “This is a huge problem for our country, and it has been for many years. The difference is that we can see the problem now.”
The last year has offered a number of disturbing examples. The whole nation heard Eric Garner saying “I can’t breathe” as a New York police officer held him in the chokehold that led to his death during an arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. We watched an officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, gun down Walter Scott as he fled unarmed, and we saw 25-year-old Freddie Gray of Baltimore being dragged to the police van during the arrest responsible for his fatal spinal injury.
To aid in the recording of police interactions, ACLU affiliates in a handful of states have recently released Mobile Justice apps, which allow users to record and upload footage instantly to their local ACLU chapter.
“It’s really about empowering people to document police misconduct where it exists,” said Sanchez. “So many people would like to deny that it exists, but it does, and we know that. It helps to have proof.”
THE IPHONE: A TOOL FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE?
Police reports do not always convey the same story as a bystander’s video. According to Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Peter Berlin, it’s difficult to defend a case involving police officers when there’s no documentary evidence, such as videos, photos, or call logs. “Sometimes it’s only the word of the police against the defendant’s word,” he said.
Because police are trained experts, Berlin said judges tend to favor police testimonies across the board. “Police are considered more trustworthy and we don’t believe that is necessarily so. A police officer’s word shouldn’t be given more weight for common true or false statements,” he said. “They’re non-scientific observations.”
When there’s video, he said, suddenly these questions of bias become less of an issue. “Video is some of the most powerful evidence you can have,” said Berlin. “If you get a police officer saying one thing and doing another on video, it goes a long way to disprove a police report.”