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Teaching citizens how to shoot better video when they witness brutality

April 10, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
Police shooting protest sign
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This week has brought questions about police violence front and center once again, and demonstrated the power of what’s captured on video, frequently by citizens — the latest case, an arrest in San Bernardino, California, that appeared to involve excessive force.

Today, 10 deputies were placed on paid leave following the release of news video showing the violent arrest of a man who fled on horseback. It comes nearly a week after Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. His funeral is this weekend.

Hari Sreenivasan has a report on efforts to use video to document violence abroad and in the U.S.

And a warning: It contains images that are disturbing, including the shooting of Walter Scott.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Everyone is shooting everything with camera phones. The shooting of Walter Scott proves that sometimes video can be used as evidence against police wrongdoing.

KELLY MATHESON, Senior Attorney and Program Manager, WITNESS: I think that cameras in everyone’s hands means that there will be more transparency and more accountability. The camera is the new DNA technology.

The DNA is only available to specialists. It’s only available to scientists. The camera is available to everyone worldwide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Video as Evidence program of WITNESS, an organization founded by musician and humanitarian activist Peter Gabriel, trains citizens around the world to safely and effectively document abuse, so that video is as effective in the courtroom as it is on the Web.

PETER GABRIEL, Musician and Humanitarian Activist: With cameras everywhere, we can document and share what is really going on. We can build campaigns with millions and billions of others and we can leverage those numbers, which are large enough that politicians can’t ignore them, to create real change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shocked citizens took to the streets after NYPD concluded there would be no indictment in the choking death of Eric Garner, despite the viral video.

There’s a difference between what makes a protest video or a human rights video go viral on the Internet and what it takes for that video to stand up in court.

KELLY MATHESON: Most of the video that we see on YouTube and that goes viral and on the media is about the crime. It’s about the what. An important part of my job is to teach people also how to document who did it and how it was done, so that we can convict perpetrators, the people who are committing these crimes, in court.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Part of the training emphasizes basic video shooting techniques, such as holding a steady shot for at least 10 seconds, proper framing of people and objects and gathering a variety of shots that show details like I.D. badges, street signs and license plate numbers.

Senior program manager Priscila Neri oversees the organization’s work in Latin America.

PRISCILA NERI, Senior Program Manager, WITNESS: You need to do things like not deleting your original file. You need to do things like making sure you can prove that that filmed the day you say it was filmed, and making sure you can find it later, and that it’s stored in a safe place.

So, all of these things about how to increase the chance of your video mattering and being useful in the fight for accountability.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fight for accountability can be dangerous, especially overseas.

When the government takes a drastic step and tries to evict people forcibly, what do you see?

ANIETIE EWANG, Social and Economic Rights Action Center: I see a lot of terror. I see a lot of pain in the eyes of the woman, the child, the old lady that is being kicked out of her home, without any alternative.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Anietie Ewang is a staff attorney at the Social and Economic Rights Action Center in Lagos, Nigeria. She took part in this workshop practicing interviewing techniques and other skills she could use to defend her community back home.

ANIETIE EWANG: I see something that tugs at my heart and I think the hearts of many of the people that have access to these videos. This is what I take to the courts to try to get justice on their behalf.

After I educate myself, I can tell the people that I come across are eager about documenting these violations how they can do it most effectively.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Activists walk a fine line between safely standing away from the abuse and potentially becoming a target by recording it.

KELLY MATHESON: The very first question that we advise activists to ask themselves is, should I or should I not press record? Is it worth it? Part of our goal is to help people really think through what sort of a footage will move people to act.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As the world becomes more brutal, do the videos that inspire change also have to be that?

KELLY MATHESON: I think that if we look back in time, we basically start with the Rodney King incident. It’s considered the first viral video for human rights.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even before the Internet, yes.

KELLY MATHESON: Then we have a situation like Oscar Grant. This was a young boy that was shot on the BART platform.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fruitvale.

These are the scenes from the 2013 movie “Fruitvale Station” about the incident. Often, police respond to situations that require split-second reactions and rely on their training to make calculated decisions. Some argue that more police oversight in the field won’t make effective policing better. It will only make it worse.

Dr. Maki Haberfeld teaches police ethics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

MAKI HABERFELD, John Jay College of Criminal Justice: To see somebody who is potentially holding a weapon or something that can be dangerous to police officers’ lives, and the decision needs to be made right now. And in the back of police officer’s head will be, oh, my goodness, I’m going to be on tape and maybe my career is over.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fatal shooting of Michael Brown introduced body camera technology into the national debate. Police departments around the country began outfitting their officers with miniature recording devices, but the cameras don’t solve all problems.

MAKI HABERFELD: It can start with the dispatch call. It can start with whatever conversation was going on between the police officers. But, on the other hand, it’s only a visual and an audio, but it’s not going to record the fear of police officers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: WITNESS, in collaboration with the International Bar Association, are developing a smartphone app called InformaCam for users to upload pictures and video on to a secure cloud repository. It records the time, date, and GPS location of each upload, who uploaded it and records every edit made to the media to ensure complete transparency if subpoenaed in court.

KELLY MATHESON: Video alone isn’t ever going to bring a perpetrator to justice, isn’t ever going to free someone who is falsely accused. It’s used in combination with witness testimony. It’s used in combination with forensics. It’s used in combination with documents. And so you take all of those different sources of evidence and you triangulate it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With hope that good video will lead to prosecutions and convictions around the world.

Hari Sreenivasan, PBS NewsHour, New York.

JUDY WOODRUFF: About three-fourths of the work the WITNESS program does is aimed outside the U.S.

Online, we have compiled six steps you can take to safely document police and public officials in your own community. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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