Les­sons of the Castile video

Po­lice dash cam footage raises ques­tion about when and how images should be made public.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Il­lions of view­ers

Mal­ready had seen images of the af­ter­math of the fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of Phi­lando Castile on July 6, 2016, cap­tured and live-streamed on Face­book by Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girl­friend, who was in the back seat of the car when he was killed.

But the shoot­ing it­self, recorded in sub­ur­ban Min­nesota by the po­lice of­fi­cer’s dash­board cam­era, was seen ini­tially only by po­lice, in­ves­ti­ga­tors and lawyers; then in re­cent weeks by the jury and any­one who hap­pened to be in the court­room dur­ing the man­slaugh­ter trial of Of­fi­cer Jeron­imo Yanez. Fi­nally, on Tues­day, sev­eral days af­ter the jury de­liv­ered its not-guilty ver­dict, it was re­leased to the broader public.

Of course the video is dis­turb­ing: It de­picts a killing. Is it en­light­en­ing? The an­swers to that ques­tion nec­es­sar­ily are sub­jec­tive. It lends cre­dence to Yanez’s ar­gu­ment that he saw Castile reach for some­thing but does not tell us con­clu­sively whether it was his gun — about which he had calmly and po­litely in­formed the of­fi­cer — or per­haps his wal­let, or some­thing else en­tirely. It does not and can­not by it­self tell us whether Yanez acted as any rea­son­able of­fi­cer would un­der the cir­cum­stances. It does not by it­self sup­port or un­der­mine the jury’s de­ci­sion.

Like the video of Los Angeles po­lice of­fi­cers beat­ing Rod­ney King in 1991, it gives the public a glimpse into the of­ten bru­tal world of polic­ing. Like the King video, it con­vinced thou­sands and per­haps mil­lions of peo­ple that they had seen a crime. Like the King video, it failed to per­suade a jury.

As with the King video, how­ever, the Castile images, in con­junc­tion with the jury de­ci­sion, sig­nals some­thing se­ri­ously amiss some­where in the chain of Amer­i­can crim­i­nal jus­tice — from the qual­ity of our polic­ing, to the le­gal stan­dards in use of force cases, to the va­garies of the jury sys­tem. Con­sen­sus on what the King video showed was broad if not com­plete, and over a pe­riod of years it led to a re­think­ing of crime-fight­ing and polic­ing that con­tin­ues even to­day. So may it be with the Castile images.

In a sense it mat­ters lit­tle whether rea­son­able peo­ple dis­agree on what video of po­lice uses of force do or do not show. Those dif­fer­ences of opin­ion, and the re­sult­ing ar­gu­ments among view­ers, are ev­i­dence of the kind of vig­or­ous and of­ten con­tentious de­bate that forms the nec­es­sary ba­sis of a free and open so­ci­ety that crafts its own rules.

But only if the public ac­tu­ally sees the images — not just those that are live-streamed by pri­vate cit­i­zens like Reynolds or caught on by­standers’ video cam­eras, as was the case in the King beat­ing, but those that are cap­tured by po­lice cam­eras mounted on pa­trol car dash­boards or of­fi­cer uni­forms.

Public ac­cess to po­lice video is at the core of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about polic­ing, race and jus­tice, and the is­sue is com­plex. Some ac­tivists who once de­manded that all of­fi­cers be equipped with cam­eras and that video of uses of force be im­me­di­ately re­leased to the public now ar­gue that po­lice will in­evitably re­lease images se­lec­tively, only as it serves their pur­poses, and that dash cams and body cams only ex­ac­er­bate a sur­veil­lance so­ci­ety in which po­lice may snoop on cit­i­zens from drones, traf­fic sig­nals and uni­forms. But that view ig­nores the im­port and pro­duc­tive role po­lice video can play.

Ear­lier this year, the Los Angeles Po­lice Com­mis­sion in­vited the public to weigh in on whether, and when, po­lice video should be re­leased. We anx­iously await the re­lease of a re­port that is to come be­fore the com­mis­sion. The cur­rent sys­tem, un­der which video of a use of force can re­main in the ex­clu­sive hands of law en­force­ment un­til com­ple­tion of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, or the con­clu­sion of a trial, is un­ac­cept­able. It is also wrong that po­lice of­fi­cials can now de­cide to re­lease video if it serves their pur­poses or keep it un­der wraps if it does not. We be­lieve the bur­den ought to fall squarely on the po­lice to demon­strate, in court if nec­es­sary, why po­lice video should not be pub­licly re­leased at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble point in the process by balanc­ing trans­parency and pri­vacy con­cerns.

The ques­tion should not be whether images like those of Castile’s killing are dis­turb­ing, in­flam­ma­tory or en­light­en­ing. Those are ques­tions the public will an­swer for it­self. The point is that to keep tabs on its crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, the public ought to be able to see it un­fold, in all its com­plex­i­ties and uncer­tain­ties, just as the po­lice do.

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