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Eyewitness Video: A Controversial Tool For Holding Police Accountable


Authorities in North Charleston, S.C., say they want to increase the use of body cameras. Police would wear cameras that could clarify what happened in violent incidents. Of course, when an officer shot a man to death in North Charleston, it was caught on video by a bystander. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more on the practice of citizens recording the police.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Nine months ago, there was another cellphone video of a police encounter making headlines, as the widow of Eric Garner recalled this week in New York City.


ESAW SNIPES: He was actually dying, screaming he could not breathe, OK? And you see it on camera and still nothing. So all that video camera nonsense...

WANG: That was Esaw Snipes at the National Action Networks Convention, venting about the lack of an indictment after her husband's death at the hands of police.

DANIEL SANCHEZ: Well, it absolutely is disheartening, however, if that incident hadn't been filmed, we might not even know who Eric Garner is.

WANG: Daniel Sanchez is a community organizer with the Justice Committee. His group trains people on how to record potential police abuse in New York City.

SANCHEZ: I think witnessing police violence is extremely traumatic for a lot of individuals when they're witnessing it. I think sometimes they get caught off guard with it.

WANG: Sanchez says that's why he reminds trainees to jot down the date, time and location of the incident they're taping to get both the police officer and the potential victim in the frame. And if they're told to stop recording, to calmly state their constitutionally protected rights to film police on duty.

CHUCK CANTERBURY: Well, it's a thing that needs to be done cautiously. We understand that there are First Amendment rights.

WANG: Chuck Canterbury retired as a police officer more than a decade ago. He now serves as the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

CANTERBURY: And I don't think anybody is upset about citizens videoing. They just have to make sure that they don't interfere with the police action that's taking place.

WANG: Not everyone agrees on what counts as interference. Right now, lawmakers in five states are considering bills that might help clear up this gray area at a time when Daniel Sanchez says filming the police is an increasingly relevant issue.

SANCHEZ: I hear some people say, oh, like, things are getting crazy now. Like, the police are out of control. You know, the interesting thing is that police violence and on the scale that we're seeing it is absolutely nothing new.

WANG: What's new, Sanchez says, is the number of regular, everyday people with video cameras right in their bags or pockets ready to record. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.