The shootings of John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio are in the national discussion now that grand juries have exonerated officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Tamir Rice is the twelve-year-old boy shot near a recreation center in Cleveland. John Crawford, 22, met his end in a Beavercreek WalMart near Dayton, Ohio. Both were black. Police claim they regarded both as mortal threats, and shot them not as a last resort, but as a first resort.
Here’s a quick comment about the video cameras that recorded both of these murders. We have worried about the proliferation of video cameras as the surveillance state extends its reach. At the same time, video cameras, both official and private, record the behavior of police and other authorities as they go about their business.
Surveillance video from the recreation center in Cleveland, for example, shows that Tamir Rice lay on the ground, unattended, for four minutes after a police officer shot him on sight. Instead, the officer and his partner wrestled Rice’s sister to the ground, handcuffed her, and placed her in their squad car to prevent her from helping her brother. Four minutes after Rice fell, an FBI agent who happened on the scene helped the dying victim. Four minutes after that, emergency medical technicians arrived. During the entire time, the two police officers did nothing to help Rice.
As one historian and researcher states, video evidence is self-authenticating. It is date and time stamped. You can verify the camera that recorded the video, and for most recordings you can establish a chain of custody. You can tell whether or not a video has been edited when you see it on the internet. Perhaps most importantly for purposes of reconstruction, a video records elapsed time. You can readily calculate how much time passes between events or actions. We know from the recreation center surveillance video how much time elapses between the time Tamir Rice falls to the ground, and the time he first receives assistance. And we can readily observe what the police officers do during that time. They prevent Tamir’s fourteen-year-old sister from helping him.
Consider the situation that occurs when video evidence does not exist. According to reports from Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook elementary school had a $300,000 security system installed shortly before the massacre there on December 14, 2012. Yet no video from the security system exists in the public domain. We have no video recordings at all from a camera at the school’s entrance, or any from cameras inside the school. If video recordings exist, no authority will release them. Significantly, no authority acknowledges that recordings do exist. The only video recordings of the Sandy Hook incident were taken from news helicopters after the event. These recordings show all activity taking place far from the school, at a fire station down the road. Events inside the school are subject to a virtual blackout.
Let’s return to video recordings of police behavior. Eric Garner’s case would not have stood out so strongly in the news if bystanders had not recorded his death. Unlike surveillance videos, smartphone videos record audio as well. You can hear Eric Garner die as the police officer who applies a chokehold compresses his windpipe, for at least a minute, while Garner pleads for breath. Afterwards, the police officer casually says that he figured Garner would be alright once emergency medical technicians arrived. That is an odd response after you have strangled someone, and you know the nation can see what you have done. Did he not think about what he was doing at the time? Is it routine for police officers to treat street peddlers in such a way that emergency medical technicians are required in the first place?
Controversy about the way police treat black men has blossomed into a sharply drawn confrontation between the New York City police department and the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. Here is a headline in the Investor’s Business Daily about the tension between police and the mayor, after a grand jury declined to return an indictment in Eric Garner’s case, and after an unhinged young man killed two police officers before he committed suicide:
This headline ought to read: NYPD must apologize to Mayor de Blasio, or go. With the police department’s current work slowdown in the city, maybe the NYPD has gone, voluntarily!
When the mayor states that police mistreat black males, he states a truism: something obviously true. For police officers to turn their backs on the mayor – twice, at funerals for both Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, for two of their own! – does in fact show disrespect for the dead officers’ family and friends. The mayor speaks on behalf of the people who loved the fallen policemen. It is amazing to me that the policemen who carried out this double protest do not see that. They seem completely determined to undermine the respect they claim as their due.
A single officer had the integrity to show respect for his fallen fellows. All of the other officers in this photograph appear to place their own interests first, and not to know what a funeral is about. After the department’s first protest, at Ramos’s funeral, both police union chief Patrick Lynch and police commissioner Bill Bratton indicated that a funeral for police officers is not the right place for policemen to express displeasure with their leader. A funeral is a ceremonial occasion to celebrate and remember someone’s life. All respect goes to the lone officer who refused to join such a mistaken gesture. He is a hero to do what is right, and to undergo ostracism he is bound to experience from his peers.
If you look carefully in the upper left of the photograph above, you see a second police officer, head bowed, who refuses to disrespect the speaker. He deserves the same admiration.