Cops vs. Cameras: Will Live Video Give Citizens Even More Power?

What Philando Castile's death caught on tape tells us about the future of filmed police encounters.


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You've likely heard about the death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul. Castile was shot by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, July 6, 2016, in the middle of a traffic stop. The aftermath was captured on Facebook Live by Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and the video went on to be viewed more than a million times.

"I wanted to put it on Facebook and go viral so that the people could see. I want the people to determine who was right and who was wrong," said Reynolds in a Facebook Live video quoted by The New York Times.

What you may not know is that that video represents a new and dynamic shift in power from media and police to citizens.

"We see so many aspects of government, rehearsed," says Jarret Lovell, professor and author of the book, Good Cop/Bad Cop: Mass Media and the Cycle of Police Reform. "And when you can see police, who are our most visible agents of government, performing something in real time, it's a sense that you are really getting at who the police are or what the police do."

The video Reynolds filmed begins after Castile has already been shot and contains no editing. She narrates as Officer Yanez points his gun inside the car where she and her young daughter are sitting as Castile lays bloodied. The video stands apart from police videos we've seen before—ranging from 1960s news coverage of police using water cannons and dogs on civil rights protesters, to the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, to the recent killing of Walter Scott by former South Carolina officer Michael Slager.

"All of the other videos that we see are taken from a distance, they're grainy, there may not be audio, there's certainly no narration. And it is up to a whole host of Monday morning quarterbacks to try to figure out how to make sense of these images. The Castile video was narrated by someone who was there and she brings us in the car with her," says Lovell. The act of using live video that day did something more than show us the gruesome details of a police encounter gone horrifically wrong, it extended and expanded the viewer's reality. Lovell points to the late media philosopher Marshall McCluhan who once talked about the mediums in which we watch media being an "extension of the senses."

"Mass media bring government behavior and bring police behavior that may be taking place far away and at another time, directly to us in the here and now." This means that video may extend the senses of people who don't have habitual interactions with the police to a place where they might get a glimpse of a world where people do. And because live video is unfiltered, unedited, and unscripted, there is a sense that you are getting once step closer to the truth.

Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told The New York Times that videos don't always tell the full story. "Any recording can ultimately be helpful," Pasco says, "but at the same time, it can't be viewed as D.N.A."

It's something Lovell cautions against as well, saying it would be a mistake to believe that these videos provide enough information. "We don't want videos to be used to draw conclusions about suspects and we don't want the videos to be enough to draw conclusions about police officers." Lovell adds, "While we want to be careful with the use of these videos, more information is always a good thing."

Charges have not been brought against Officer Yanez at this time, but the state has completed an investigation and has submitted it to a county attorney who will decide to bring charges or present them to a grand jury.

Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Alex Manning.

Approximately 7 min.