How Your iPhone Can Help Stop Police Brutality
By Elisha Hahm + Illustrations by Adrian Hatch
Eric Garner gasps for air as a New York Police Department officer locks the 400-pound asthmatic man in a chokehold—a practice banned by the NYPD in 1993. He eventually tumbles to the concrete sidewalk as fellow officers pile on top of him, ignoring his cries: “I can’t breathe.”
Witnesses say Garner was breaking up a fight when he caught police officers’ attention on the day of his death. But the 43-year-old Staten Island resident had been on the police department's radar for quite some time.
The New York Times reported that Garner had been arrested more than 30 times for selling single, untaxed cigarettes and pocketing the money. Police officers were sent to investigate the matter after receiving complaints about the sale of loose cigarettes, with one complaint that specifically identified “a man named Eric.” Despite his criminal history, helpless bystanders who watched the father of six succumb to unconsciousness say that Garner simply wanted to know why he was being harassed—and eventually paid for that question with his life. Ramsey Orta, the man who shot the video that later went viral on YouTube, and another witness say that the police attacked Garner without probable cause. “They jumped him and they were choking him. He was foaming at the mouth,” Orta told The NY Daily News. “And that’s it, he was done.The cops were saying, ‘No, he’s OK, he’s OK.’ He wasn’t OK.”
So how does the suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes suddenly escalate into a full-blown death sentence? Police departments and politicians claim that these are isolated events and that police violence is not the norm. But we know that people are more outraged than ever with local law enforcement. The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project recorded that 1,575 officers were involved in reported excessive force complaints in 2012. More than half of these were involved with cases of physical uses of force, including complaints such as fist strikes, throws, chokeholds, and baton strikes.
Bystanders film, publicize, and spread evidence of police brutality incidents across social media platforms like wildfire. Passersby touting smartphones can become videographers and film police officers with a tap of a finger, making them whistleblowers in their own right.
Social media is the new gatekeeper of breaking news, with Facebook leading the way as the top news source. Almost two-thirds of U.S. adults use the site, and half of those users get news there—amounting to 30 percent of the general online population. From funny and cute to completely unjust and horrifying, the content shared through social media has no filter. The story of Garner, an unarmed black man who died after a scuffle with the local police, may sound pretty familiar to people by now. What made this particular incident so outstanding was the viral spread of videos documenting what really went down.
In July, 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock was walking on the side of the highway near Los Angeles when a California Highway Patrol Officer pulled over and ordered her to stop. When she refused to comply, the officer pinned Marlene to the ground and punched her 15 times in the head. One man pulled over to record the incident with his smartphone. Social media news outlets quickly picked it up. The officer is now on forced administrative time off and might be charged with a felony. None of that was guaranteed to happen had someone not taped the incident and shared it. Police in the L.A. area have one of the worst records concerning instances like this. In 1991, Police beat L.A. man Rodney King nearly to death after a high-speed car chase. Footage of this horrific incident mixed with the acquittal of the officers in question sparked outrage in the minority race communities of L.A., starting the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Fifty-three died, more than 11,000 were arrested.
Another more recent and widely publicized case of police brutality was the death of Michael Brown. On Aug. 9 Darren Wilson shot the unarmed black teenager on a street in Ferguson, Mo. The aftermath of his death sparked outrage from protestors and an onslaught of FBI and grand jury investigations. The teenager was surrendering. The coroner confirmed that, at the time of his death, his hands were in the air to show he was unarmed. But still, Ferguson authorities claim that Brown had attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.
Since Brown’s death, several eyewitnesses have come forward to describe what they saw take place.They went as far as recording eyewitness interviews and protests on smartphones shortly after the shooting and posting them on Twitter. One user, @TheePharoah, even live-tweeted the killing, writing “I just saw someone die OMFG.”
But not all instances of police brutality come with witness accounts and national news coverage. These cases are not isolated occurrences. They expose incidents that occur every day in our society, usually with no witnesses to record it. The videos people share on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter give a voice to those without power and demand accountability from those abusing their power. Social media enables people to strive for change. In fact, the city of Chicago is implementing a new policy that will make public any completed investigation of police misconduct instead of the incidents being treated as personnel matters. Although this policy has yet to turn national, it brings hope that there will be transparency within police departments, which currently have a reputation for keeping a strict code of silence.
Social media has transformed into a powerful tool of public awareness and although it can’t stop police brutality on its own, it certainly helps keep the police force in check. It also prompts people to care about what’s going on in their world, to hold each other accountable for their actions, and to make the changes necessary to create safe, and just, communities.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Jerk.