Thursday, October 06, 2022

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A. Technological Advances

Technology has advanced at an exponential rate in recent years, and these advancements have had a substantial effect on the ability of the citizenry to effectively monitor and control the type of police misconduct protested by the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Nation of Islam. There are now more than 280 million cell phone users in the United States, the majority of whom can use their phones to record video quickly and easily. This video evidence bolsters civilian ability to successfully prosecute police misconduct.

Consequently, the populations most vulnerable to police brutality have found themselves newly empowered. Even in countries in which individuals experience far greater levels of poverty than individuals in the U.S., cell phone use and technology as a whole has thrived. The Hmong villagers in Northwest Vietnam have access to internet cafes, but live in medieval farmhouses. Nearly thirty percent of Haitians own cell phones; reporters spoke with a farmer there whose list of possessions included a shack, a hard-dirt field, two mango trees, and a mobile phone. According to Amanda Girdner, program manager of a New York-based non-profit that helps to bring mobile phones to Africa's rural poor, “[y]ou can walk in the middle of a rural village in Rwanda and use a mobile phone to pay at a recharging station to recharge LED lights.” In the United States, a study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that adults living in poverty use cell phones at a roughly nineteen percent greater rate than those with higher incomes. In this new fight against police brutality, the poor find themselves, for once, well-armed.

Predictably, video sharing websites like YouTube now host tens of thousands of videos alleging police misconduct. Footage posted of excessive force by officers in response to the Occupy Wall Street protests has been reported on by numerous major news organizations including The Atlantic, The New York Times, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC. Although these videos are some of the most famous, they are far from the worst. A thirty-minute video emerged in 2011 showing the killing of Kelly Thomas, a homeless and mentally ill man suspected of breaking into cars. In the truly disturbing video, six officers threaten and then beat Thomas with fists, a baton, and the butt of a stun gun while he repeatedly apologizes, insists that he cannot breathe, and pleads for his absent father. Thomas subsequently died of a crushed windpipe. Spectators at trial left the courtroom in disgust and the judge paused the video to warn those who could not stomach its content to leave. The video formed the key evidence in charging one of the officers with second degree murder.

Another widely circulated video shows an NYPD officer, Patrick Pogan, violently shoving a bicyclist, Christopher Long, to the ground apparently without provocation during a Critical Mass bike ride in 2008. The incident is significant because Pogan was subsequently convicted of felony charges of filing a false criminal complaint against Long. The complaint included the assertion that Long knocked Officer Pogan to the ground by intentionally running into him with his bicycle, an assertion blatantly contradicted by the video. If Rodney King's beating can be considered instructive, legal recourse would have been nearly impossible in the absence of a bystander's video.

Due to the “he said, she said” nature of prosecuting police misconduct, video evidence can be dispositive in pursuing complaints. In Los Angeles, “[t]he Christopher Commission found that only forty-two of 2152 allegations of excessive force [against the LAPD] were sustained between 1986 and 1990, or less than two percent.” Without corroborating evidence, juries heavily favor police testimony over that of a suspected criminal. This truth is unfortunate for the prospective plaintiff because, as exemplified by the charges filed against Officer Pogan, some officers are quite willing to lie to cover their illegal actions, even under oath and penalty of criminal sanctions. Regarding the unrecorded February 2012 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, local police chief Billy Lee stated that there is “no evidence to contradict Zimmerman's claim of self-defense.” In the absence of video, he is likely correct. Fortunately for the disaffected, cases against law enforcement officers for use of excessive force or other tactics which violate civil rights have increased twenty-five percent between 2001 and 2007, compared to the preceding seven years. During the same time period, the Department of Justice has won fifty-three percent more convictions. These statistics correlate with an increase of over 100 million cell phone subscribers, a fact which is likely not coincidental. The phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by police; a number of departments have requested that Google remove videos alleging police brutality from its website YouTube.

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