Thursday, June 11, 2020

Has The SmartPhone As Witness Brought Police Brutality To An Inflection Point?


technologyreview |  Once again, footage taken on a smartphone is catalyzing action to end police brutality once and for all. But Frazier’s video also demonstrates the challenge of turning momentum into lasting change. Six years ago, the world watched as Eric Garner uttered the same words—“I can’t breathe”—while NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled him in a chokehold. Four years ago, we watched again as Philando Castile, a 15-minute drive from Minneapolis, bled to death after being shot five times by Officer Jeronimo Yanez at a traffic stop. Both incidents also led to mass protests, and yet we’ve found ourselves here again.

So how do we turn all this footage into something more permanent—not just protests and outrage, but concrete policing reform? The answer involves three phases: first, we must bear witness to these injustices; second, we must legislate at the local, state, and federal levels to dismantle systems that protect the police when they perpetrate such acts; and finally, we should organize community-based “copwatching” programs to hold local police departments accountable.

The good news is there are already strong indications that phase one is making an impact. “There have been so many different moments that should have been the powder keg, but they just weren’t,” says Allissa V. Richardson, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Southern California who recently wrote a book about the role of smartphones in the movement to end police brutality. “I think that this is different.”

Smartphones are still the best tool for proving police brutality and shifting public opinion. And early research from Richardson’s team has noted several indicators that they have already done so.

By tagging photos of protesters by race, for example, they have found that the current demonstrations are far more diverse than previous police brutality protests. This suggests that, as with historical examples, other racial groups are now readily allying with black people. By analyzing the news and social media with natural-language processing, they have also found that discussion about whether the victim was a respectable person or did anything to deserve violent treatment has been less prevalent in the case of Floyd than others killed by police.

Richardson has found this same shift to hold true in focus groups and interviews. In the past, white people often expressed sentiments like “This person was no angel,” she says, but the tone now is completely different. Even though Floyd was arrested on charges of using a fake $20 bill, “they say, ‘You know what? We are in the middle of a pandemic. I would probably do the same thing,’” she says. Then they point to the long string of killings that made it impossible for them to deny racism and police brutality any longer: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner.