Evidence in the Digital Age

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An article on CNN.com last week was entitled “Scott, Castile and the Women Who Filmed Their Final Moments.” Millions have seen the video that Rakeyia Scott took with her phone as police killed her husband, Keith. In July, Diamond Reynolds streamed live on Facebook the moments following the fatal shooting of her fiancé, Philando Castile, at the hands of police.

146858_pic.jpgBoth of these women, as they watched the man they loved die, turned on their camera phones and took video. According to CNN, “In both cases, the viewers of the videos commented on how unnaturally calm Rakeyia Scott and Diamond Reynolds were  in the midst of the deadly situations.” Why, under the circumstances, would the women turn on their cameras? Why would they even think about doing that?

All of the time on television and in movies we see where a strategically-placed surveillance camera helps the police capture criminals. We have seen snapshots and videos lead to the capture in real life of criminals in cases like the Boston Marathon bombings and the recent bombings in New York. I don’t know when the first bystander turned on a camera to film the police, but the 2016 indictment of Michael Slager for the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, following a stop for a broken taillight, showed that the cameras could be turned not only on, but against the police. "I can tell you that as the result of that video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with murder," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey told reporters. Scott’s family and others have expressed hope that the indictment will be a turning point. 

Recent history has made us rethink what constitutes convincing evidence in a case of deadly force by police. The officer’s version of what happened is no longer accepted at face value. Verbal testimony has come to be seen as reflective of racial division, and cases of black men killed by white officers have raised a cry for police officers to be equipped with body cameras. The ethos of police officers has been damaged for the many ethical officers by a few unethical or allegedly unethical ones. There is a contemporary backlash against the time when blacks in America could not testify against whites, and a more recent time when the word of a white police officer was taken to have greater value than the word of a black civilian. Videos are not irrefutable evidence of what happened. In the case of Walter Scott, the early moments of the encounter were not filmed, but the image of a white man shooting an unarmed black man in the back five times while he was running away was enough to lead to Slater’s indictment. The video of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott leaves questions unanswered. What was in his hand? Was it a gun on the ground? Was the gun there throughout the video? It is significant that the outcry for the police video to be made public was so great that the police gave in to that demand.

So why did Rakeyia Scott and Diamond Reynolds turn on their cameras? Did they have enough foresight to think that in an American court of law their word would not stand up against that of the police? It is chilling to hear Mrs. Scott scream over and over, “He doesn’t have a gun! He doesn’t have a gun!” When her screams turn to “Don’t do it, Keith! Don’t do it!” did she foresee the shots that killed him seconds later? Neither her video nor that taken by the police car’s dash cam tells the whole story. Ms. Reynolds turned on her camera only after the police asked her fiancé for identification and then shot him four times after he informed him that he had a permit to carry a gun and had one in the car. She felt she had to get what followed on video because it would be her word against that of a policeman. Each woman knew that she needed visual and audio evidence. An attorney could, in all three cases, argue that key seconds of the incident are missing or that the angle does not provide incontrovertible evidence of the sequence of events. I have to wonder if, as white woman, I would have reacted as these women did. The point, however, is whether I, as a white woman, would have needed to.

Credit: "Smartphone - Lovebot Toronto" by Joseph Morris on Flickr

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.