scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Grim new rule for civilians and cops: record everything

Still images from video showed Alton Sterling as he was shot dead by police during an incident captured on the mobile phone camera of shop owner Abdullah Muflahi in Baton Rouge on July 5. REUTERS

It’s come to this: The best way to discourage police officers from shooting a civilian unnecessarily, or at least to maximize the likelihood they’ll face consequences if they do, is for everyone to be recording everybody else at all times.

Two officers in Baton Rouge, La., caused a national uproar when they shot an African-American man, Alton Sterling, to death as they subdued him in a convenience store parking lot on Tuesday night. Footage from body cameras reportedly worn by officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake has not yet surfaced. But there were cellphone videos. According to The Washington Post, one was taken by Stop the Violence Inc., a group that listens to police scanners and rushes to scenes to record potentially violent confrontations. A second video was purportedly taken by the store owner, a friend of Sterling.


The clips are graphic, but you should watch them. Neither of them indicates that Sterling was in any position to threaten officers with a gun.

If not for the video footage, many Americans might never believe how quickly a seemingly routine encounter between officers and a civilian — these cases disproportionately involve black civilians — can end with the latter lying in his own blood on the ground.

The New York Times has compiled an aggregation of confrontations that were caught on camera. Even as the Baton Rouge controversy exploded, the Times’ list needed to be updated yet again: After police in Falcon Heights, Minn., shot her boyfriend during a traffic stop Wednesday night, a woman identified on Facebook as Lavish Reynolds began recording a live video to the social media site. The clip is surreal and profoundly disturbing. As her boyfriend, a school cafeteria supervisor later identified by friends as Philando Castile, is literally dying on camera, Reynolds calmly disputes the facts of the encounter with the officer. The officer maintains that her boyfriend was about to pull a gun. No, she insists, he was disclosing as he went for his ID that he was carrying a weapon he was licensed to have; presumably, he meant to avoid precisely the kind of misunderstanding that just got him shot.


No doubt, some viewers will talk themselves into excusing officers’ actions in each and every case: Sterling should have submitted more quickly; that unarmed guy who was shot in the back by an officer in South Carolina never should have run away to begin with; even if Reynolds’s account is correct, her boyfriend should have awaited more detailed instruction about how to handle his concealed weapon without alarming the officer.

But come on. Taken together, these clips shock the conscience of the average viewer.

Police departments in Massachusetts and elsewhere long resisted efforts by civilians to record their activities. In fact, the proliferation of video footage can help police departments shut down the rumor mill. I wrote about such a case in Roxbury last year. Police Commissioner William Evans used a surveillance video to show key African-American community leaders that suspect Angelo West was shot by one Boston officer only after critically wounding another. Here’s the gist of that column:

The age of ambient surveillance is upon us. The ubiquity of cellphone cameras and commercial security systems can help police flush out suspects; after the Marathon bombings, images from cameras on Boylston Street proved useful in identifying the Tsarnaev brothers. This same proliferation of cameras radically increases the likelihood that, when police tactics come into question, there will be video... For police, keeping the peace under these circumstances may mean building trust with a broader set of gatekeepers. But driving out misinformation with hard facts -- one way or another -- becomes all the more urgent.

Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s a blow to civility when all interactions between the police and the neighborhoods they serve need to be mediated by video cameras. And if we as a society somehow become inured to traffic-stop snuff films, heaven help us.


But as the clips already before us show, the presumption of common interest and mutual respect that most white, middle-class Americans enjoy in their own interactions with law enforcement is woefully missing in certain communities. Until that chasm closes, we’re stuck with cameras.

Dante Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Facebook: or on Twitter: @danteramos.