The top of a police car with the emergency lights flashing.
Image Source: Scott Rodgerson / Unsplash

The Harm in Circulating Graphic Videos of Police Brutality

On April 4th, Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was shot and killed by a police officer while restrained in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bodycam footage and user-generated content depict Lyoya exiting the car after being pulled over, prompting a struggle. After Lyoya agrees to comply, a Taser is drawn by an officer, which Lyoya grabs and tosses away. After a further struggle, the officer who had Lyoya pinned to the ground shot Lyoya in the head, killing him. Read more details about the incident and statements from the family and their legal representation.

Similar to other recorded instances of police brutality, footage of Lyoya’s death has been shared broadly across social media, sparking outrage. Access to the footage is a good step in transparency; bodycam footage, designed to hold police officers accountable while on the job, should never be withheld from a victim’s family and community.

TAKE ACTION

• The family of Patrick Lyoya is calling for the police department to release the name of the officer who shot and killed him, in addition for them to be fired and prosecuted. Share this graphic, created by Black Lives Matter Michigan in partnership with the family, to advocate for accountability, using the hashtag #Justice4Patrick.

Use the resources created by the Witness Media Lab when considering posting or sharing videos of police brutality.

But violence against Black people has also been used as a commodity, bartered and sold throughout time. I can’t help but think about how, just decades ago, lynchings were treated as a public attraction. Crowds would gather to partake in festivities surrounding the unjust killing, posing for photographs and taking home pieces of the person’s corpse as “souvenirs.” Postcards would be created and distributed as lasting memories. Videos taken by police bodycams and shared widely have a similar feeling; digital souvenirs of violence protected by social and political norms.

User-generated videos, however, have a different intent. Although still difficult to watch, they’re the recordings of what an everyday person was forced to bear witness to, individuals rendered helpless in the face of violence. Recording a conflict can be a form of bystander intervention when other options are limited. And social movements across time have been sparked by marginalized communities leveraging whatever channel they can to ensure their voices are heard. In this case, user-generated videos are journalism, a testament to the stories that define generations. In the case of Patrick Lyoya, a passenger in the car he was driving filmed the encounter on their cellphone. If the Michigan State Police hadn’t complied, this footage – and that of a neighbor’s home surveillance camera – may be the only documentation of what happened. 

Author and professor Allissa Richardson, who advocates for citizen journalism and encourages everyone to consider their role in documenting the world around them, refers to it as “sousveillance.” This is the opposite of surveillance, created by body cameras, security cameras, and other public, often state-sanctioned forms of recordings. Sousveillance is people capturing stories with their own devices (usually smartphones) that will likely counter or disprove the facts presented by those with more power and privilege (Nieman Lab).

Regardless of their intention, though, all videos of police brutality need to be shared with sensitivity, as they exacerbate the trauma that people of color experience regularly. A study found that 20% of Black people who watch a video are “significantly affected” by it, experiencing lasting effects, including stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, or vicarious PTSD (Yahoo). These only elevate the race-based trauma that people of color experience in their daily lives (PBS). In an article written by Arionne Nettles, Alfiee Breland-Noble, the founder and director of the mental health organization AAKOMA Project, notes how Black adolescents deal with vicarious trauma from watching the videos (ZORA).

“Instead, cellphone videos of vigilante violence and fatal police encounters should be viewed like lynching photographs — with solemn reserve and careful circulation.”

Allissa Richardson, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, 2021 fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest Journalism, for Nieman Labs.

Leon Ford, who was shot and paralyzed by a police officer during a traffic stop in 2012, also urges us to consider the individuals and families of the victims. “These people have children. These people have cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who can’t live a normal life…even though I don’t watch those videos, I can feel that energy. When I see somebody posting, I scroll past it. It still sticks to me” (Yahoo).

Some will argue that it’s necessary to share because we will never be able to fight for justice without them. But what does it say about us that justice can only be pursued for the most atrocious cases and only if they were captured on video and circulated broadly enough to create public outcry? Why is justice only justified when the crime is warranted worthy of national attention? Most urgently, when will we take action not to share but change the social conditions to ensure that these instances never happen again?

That will take us changing our behavior. We must channel immediate outrage into a persistent commitment to long-term change. Media platforms are taking note; more have chosen not to post the videos on their social media feeds and create multiple news articles highlighting the event, including the video footage and one without. And as individuals, we can do the same. Consider sharing the information sans video instead of trying to elicit strong emotions like shock or disgust. More importantly, we recommend sharing proactive ways your community can address policing and public safety issues, like upcoming city council meetings or alternatives to calling the police. It’s action – not awareness – that will prevent these videos in the future.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

 • On April 4th, Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was shot and killed by a police officer while restrained in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 • Bodycam footage and user-generated content of the incident is being shared broadly on social media.

 • Sharing graphic videos of police brutality may raise awareness, but also cause harm – and obfuscate the real effort needed to create change. 

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