Judging police in the court of YouTube
FOUR MINUTES INTO a now-infamous YouTube video from McKinney, Texas, it becomes clear how the ubiquity of cellphone cameras is changing the way police interact with the public.
On Friday, after officers responded to a call about a disturbance at a pool party, one of them — later identified as Corporal Eric Casebolt — ended up wrestling a barefoot girl in a two-piece bathing suit to the ground. As the officer kneels on the 15-year-old’s back, a male voice near the camera asserts that Casebolt had pulled his gun on her. That remark catches the officer’s ear. “No, I didn’t,” he insists, turning toward the camera. “Now get your butts out of here.”
That the officer pauses to explain himself is striking — all the more so because his other actions look aggressive. In the video, another officer speaks firmly but calmly with teenagers on the scene, even thanking those who return a flashlight he’s dropped. In contrast, Casebolt moves about frantically, and he draws his weapon as two young men yell at him about his rough treatment of the 15-year-old.
Police operate in a world of ambient surveillance. Some departments take advantage of this dynamic. Just last week, authorities in Boston used video footage to dispel a rumor that Usaamah Rahim, who was killed in a confrontation with law enforcement last Tuesday, had been shot three times in the back.
Still, no one has fully digested the implications of having cameras everywhere. Christine Cole, executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute, said she recognizes the value of greater accountability for police. But she also argues that even videos leave many questions unanswered. “We have no idea what we’ve missed,” she says.
Did Casebolt know he’d be judged in the court of YouTube? The potential racial subtext of the incident was obvious: The officers in the video are white; most of the teens are African-American. As the McKinney incident shows, video is helpful up to a point, but it’s no substitute for mutual understanding.