A Video Survey of Police Interactions: Inequality in Black and White

Comparing examples of white and black Americans’ encounters with police seems to present undeniable evidence of injustice. But does this type of footage ever make a difference?

Footage of the July 2014 arrest of Eric Garner, during which he died of a heart attack
Footage of the July 2014 arrest of Eric Garner, during which he died of a heart attack YouTube screenshot

There is a difference this time; this time there’s a video,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd at Eric Garner’s funeral in July. “Go to the tape. The tape tells what you did and what you didn’t do.” He was referring to the footage of the last living moments of the unarmed black New York City man who died in a police choke hold, footage that had already set off national outrage about treatment of African Americans by law-enforcement officers. “This time we want no excuses, no backbiting. Go to the tape!” the civil rights leader insisted.

Sharpton’s optimism, however, belied history and facts. “The tape” has not brought, and will not bring, justice when it comes to individual acts of police brutality against black victims, or the stark disparities in the ways in which black and white citizens interact with law-enforcement officers overall.

Photographs of lynchings didn’t foster a shift toward justice. News reports of water hoses and police dogs didn’t compel national outrage from “sea to shining sea.” Even the advent of the camcorder did not produce accountability or a cultural shift in America’s Jim Crow policing. Remember that in 1992, after George Holliday documented the beating of Rodney King, a Simi Valley, Calif., jury still found it in their minds and hearts to declare the four officers innocent.

Why would we expect video to change things now?

Despite the amount of evidence of the lack of justice in individual cases and larger patterns of police brutality—for years now, people have been picking up their camcorders and camera phones to document police officers clotheslining, kicking and tasing pregnant black women, as well as beating, choking, body-slamming, punching and even killing unarmed black men and teens—a picture or a video is rarely enough to prompt the necessary action.

That said, our comparison of publicly available videos of black and white Americans in encounters with law-enforcement officers does reveal fundamental racial differences that deserve attention.

Themes emerge: The white subjects directly challenge the authority and knowledge of the police, often confidently citing their constitutional rights. The black videographers taping black subjects, on the other hand, adjust to get better lines of sight for their shots and to capture the dialogue and actions of the cops. They also narrate for us what has already happened to the person being arrested or beaten. People in the crowd offer advice to keep quiet or not to resist. White subjects are often in cars, with their interactions with police calmly captured by passengers. Those videos involving blacks are more often shot in public spaces, to be documented only by bystanders.

The source of instigation is another clear difference. Videos involving white people tend to highlight officers who are patient and willing to listen to the constitutional lessons provided by the citizens they’ve stopped. In one, titled, “Trucker Pulls Cop Over, Teaches Him a Lesson,” not only does the driver challenge the legality of being pulled over, but he also lectures the officer on his speed and his holding a cellphone while driving.