Recent events in McKinney and Austin have attracted widespread attention not merely because they happened, but because so many of us could see it.
These events highlight the value of everyday people responsibly capturing police activity on video.
It’s unlikely that we’re witnessing an increase in problematic behavior. What’s new is that these videos lend credibility to those who have complained in the past of unfair practices.
Cameras allow us to hold our public officials accountable. Responsibly taking video of police or any other government official operating in public is one way each of us can support the democratic process.
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To responsibly video police means staying out of any altercation, not interfering but making an effort to document the entire event so that others can make their own judgments about what happened.
We live in a society awash in stereotypical representations in which certain types of people are criminals and police always solve the case while occasionally “bending the rules” for justice.
Even if we know intellectually that people of all races can be criminals and that police officers are fallible, these stereotypes are deeply ingrained.
So when videos surface that show officers pepper-spraying a bystander after snatching his smartphone or putting a knee into the back of a teenage girl, we are shocked, saddened and shaken.
Such videos should inspire us to be grateful to live in a democracy that grants us the right to keep an eye on government. Our Bill of Rights offers a number of ways for everyday people to keep the powerful in check, and taking video of police is one.
Legislation such as the bill filed in this year’s session that would have made it illegal for a resident to film within 25 feet of police activity is not the way to go.
We can all sympathize with the pressures of police work while still expecting them to make good decisions in the field.
But we cannot have realistic conversations about how police should de-escalate tense situations or peacefully settle high-stress encounters unless we understand what their work is like.
Videos such as the ones from McKinney and Austin can inform these discussions.
Many departments across the country are considering the use of wearable cameras, or “badge cams,” for officers, which would augment the evidence gathered by the already common “dash-cams.”
These recorders are useful for learning what happened from an officer’s perspective. But they can easily be turned off or blocked when an officer strays from protocol — those times when public oversight is most needed.
The additional perspective of the everyday person’s smartphone is invaluable.
Mary Angela Bock is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.