Eyewitness videos of shootings have helped bring accountability to law enforcement. But they can also traumatize African Americans who see themselves and those they love in these fatal encounters.
On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, 37, died after police in Louisiana tackled and shot him outside the convenience store where he was selling CDs. The following day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in Minnesota during a traffic stop.
The horrific eyewitness videos of both shootings immediately went viral on social media. One social media post of the leaked video of the 2016 death of Delrawn Small, shot by an off-duty New York City police officer in a traffic dispute, has been viewed more than 70,000 times.
Historically, such searing images have helped gather support for legal reforms against racial discrimination and state violence against African American people. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, photographers captured images of African-American demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and law enforcement officials wielding billy clubs and fire hoses.
A generation later, in 1991, video of Rodney King being clubbed and kicked by police was broadcast on national and world news.
In the digital age, however, images of police violence have never been as widespread. No longer confined to mainstream news coverage, these incidents are on our Facebook and Twitter feeds instantly and continually: police firing at Walter Scott as he bolts away; five-year-old Kodi Gaines telling his mother “They trying to kill us” moments before police shot and killed her and wounded him in their apartment; Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breathe” as New York City officers gripped him in a chokehold.
With the ubiquity of smartphones and dash and body cameras, there is ample footage to expose police violence and grab the nation’s attention. In a virtually unlimited digital space, the images spread fast and far. Footage has refuted police accounts, revealed crucial facts withheld from families of victims, and sparked campaigns for justice and reform.
“The racial justice movement against state violence would not have accelerated at the quick pace that it did without these videos,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Yet because the images of police violence are so pervasive, they inflict a unique harm on viewers, particularly African Americans, who see themselves and those they love in these fatal encounters.
This recognition becomes a form of violence in and of itself—and even more so when justice is denied.
Social scientists have a theory about “linked fate”: In the African American community, individual life chances are recognized as inextricably tied to the race as a whole. So when black people watch a video of police violence against another black person, they see themselves or their loved ones in that person’s place, knowing that the same fateful encounter could very well happen to them.
“It’s an image now stuck in your head forever,” said Monnica Williams, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut who specializes in race-based trauma. “You carry that horror around with you.”
Viewing such images, various studies show, induces stress, fear, frustration, anger, and anxiety. There is also preliminary evidence suggesting that these images could lead to a cascading series of physical ailments, including eating and sleeping disorders, high blood pressure, and heart problems.
Williams said that viewers also start to think differently about their world. They feel their future is limited, while any symbol of the police can impart a sense of fear and dread.
The images “remind them of the cheapness of black life,” Muhammad said.
This feeling deepens when these videos showing violent black death are treated by the media as death porn or perverse entertainment.
“To just have black bodies laying out on the street,” Williams said, “like roadkill for everybody to see—this is dehumanizing and traumatic.”
There is also concern that viewers might eventually become inured to these images, indelible as they are, which might dampen efforts to hold accountable the police officers and the criminal justice system. Conversely, such repeated footage can also make some viewers so piercingly aware of police violence that they instinctively disengage from the police rather than risk facing them.
Blaming the Victim
It is not only videos of police violence that traumatize black viewers, but also the response from commenters once the footage has been posted.
On social media, some users blame the victim in “why didn’t he just…” or “she should have just …” admonishments. Some white Americans “don’t understand, see, or appreciate our reality,” said Williams of the University of Connecticut.
“They walk around in a very privileged space so they don’t even see racism that’s happening in front of them.”
The result, Williams said, is that “they are constantly hurting us.” And a seemingly innocuous response, or no response at all from friends, to a video of police violence on social media can carry over into everyday life, causing some black Americans to mask their pain and anger in spaces such as the office or a dinner party.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws for body cameras. But in some states, to the frustration of impacted family members, activists, and local politicians, such footage is not public record, or local governments can limit how much footage is released.
In some cases, it is clear why police would want to keep their behavior hidden.
After body-cam footage was posted of a BART officer in West Oakland fatally shooting 28-year-old Sahleem Tindle three times in the back last January, as he wrestled on the ground with another man, it has been viewed more than 10,000 times. The media had reported that police initially said Tindle had been wielding a gun.
Still, Tindle’s mother, Yolanda Banks-Reed, told me, “I don’t just want likes and shares, I want help.”
Some videos that refute police accounts have aided in indictments and convictions. In August 2018, Roy Oliver, a police officer in Texas who shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Edwards’s murder. Police camera footage played a key role in the trial: Edwards and four other high-schoolers were driving away from what a 911-caller had described as a rowdy house party in a Dallas suburb when Oliver fired five shots into the teens’ car.
Before his arrest, Oliver said that their vehicle had backed toward his partner, and that he feared for his partner’s life. But the footage played for jurors showed the car backing up then driving away, past Oliver and his partner. One leaked clip showed Edwards’s stepbrother exiting the car with his hands up pleading with officers: “Please help us. He’s dead. Please don’t shoot me.”
Still, the videos may not have been the decisive factor in the court case. During the trial, Oliver’s partner essentially testified against him, saying he did not fear for his life, and did not think he would be hit by the teens’ car.
Few Substantial Reforms
Ultimately, Williams said, video accounts alone have brought about few, if any, substantial police reforms. They have brought widespread awareness that implicit racial bias indeed exists within police departments. However, that basic fact is now bitterly, painfully clear, and the question is what comes next for America, in terms of actual change.
“This isn’t rocket science,” said Muhammad of Harvard. “We certainly don’t want more of them to strengthen the case.”
The advent of new technologies has allowed us to chronicle and testify to a horribly entrenched truth: The American justice system continually, daily devalues black bodies. It has only been forced to reckon with the reality of its own bias when a flash of video shows, in soul-wrenching detail, the ease with which a life can be extinguished.
This revelation comes at a cost to the well-being of African Americans across the country who are exposed to these images at the swipe of a finger or the click of a mouse. And so far, with precious little to show by way of significant and lasting reform, the cost has been too high.
This is a condensed version of an essay published in The New Republic by Kia Gregory, a New York-based freelance writer, as her project for the 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellowship. Read her full essay here. She welcomes comments from readers.