In the years since the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a wave of protests against abusive law enforcement, there has been a remarkable shift in public opinion about race and policing.
A Washington Post poll released this week found that 69 percent of Americans say Floyd’s killing represents a systemic problem with policing, while just 29 percent say it’s an isolated incident; six years ago, the Post reports, more than half of Americans saw police killings of unarmed black men as isolated events, with just 43 percent viewing them as part of a wider trend.
That shift has produced bipartisan support for activism against police violence. The Post poll found that 74 percent of Americans support recent protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Democrats were more likely to support the protests, but a majority of Republicans and independents backed them too. A Monmouth poll released last week found that 57 percent of Americans, including about half of white Americans, said police officers were generally more likely to treat black people unfairly than to mistreat white people, which The New York Times describes as a “drastic change” in public attitudes about racial disparities in policing.
As with nearly all instances of rapid social change, there are many factors at work. The Black Lives Matter movement has tirelessly emphasized racial disparities in law enforcement and made police reform an urgent national priority. Conservative activists have embraced criminal justice reforms that reject tough-on-crime policies. News coverage has become less deferential to police narratives. The political class has, in some instances, distanced itself from law enforcement. Social media has proven a potent tool for activists to organize and get out their message. None of these forces should be discounted.
But perhaps the simplest story one can tell is this: We filmed the cops, and people changed their minds.
For the last two decades, America has conducted an experiment in mass videography. Virtually everyone in the country now carries a camera in his or her pocket. In addition, our highways, streets, and sidewalks are watched by an array of public and private digital eyes, recording, if not everything, then much of the nation’s public interactions—including with the police.
It’s not hard to understand the resistance. Those ubiquitous cameras—on cellphones, on dashboards, in stores, on police uniforms—have repeatedly given the public deeply disturbing glimpses into how officers of the law do their jobs.
They showed us the horrific final moments of George Floyd and Eric Garner, six years apart, as they slowly asphyxiated from the force that police officers exerted on their bodies, each man gasping for breath, crying out for their lives, struggling to form the words, “I can’t breathe.”
They showed us the shots a South Carolina cop fired into Walter Scott’s back as he fled on foot after being pulled over for a broken taillight. They showed us the 40 seconds during which Minnesota cafeteria worker Philando Castille was pulled over by a Minneapolis patrolman and then shot to death after disclosing that he was carrying a firearm. They showed us the arrest of Sandra Bland, a Texas woman pulled over for failing to use a turn signal, as an angry cop pointed a weapon at her and screamed, “I will light you up!” (A few days later, she was found in her jail cell, hanged to death.)
And over the last two weeks, cameras have given us a parade of videos showing how some in law enforcement behave when facing a national outcry over abuses of power and excessive use of force: with abuses of power and excessive use of force.
Researchers have spent years digging into crime data and arrest reports in order to demonstrate the racial disparities in police work and sentencing. But charts and graphs and studies, while valuable, can only do so much. Images inevitably have a more visceral impact.
Each video is an act of documentary filmmaking, and each one helps to tell a story. Although the particulars differ, that story has been remarkably consistent: police abusing their power to violent ends, especially when interacting with minorities. Tell a story enough times, show it happening again and again and again, and it reshapes the way people see the world. Over time, in the public mind, a pile-up of anecdotes eventually becomes data.
As University of Wisconsin journalism professor Douglas McLeod, who studies the way news consumption affects culture and politics, recently told The New York Times, the steady stream of videos depicting police abuse, in combination with the distribution of those videos through social media, has changed the way people see law enforcement abuses:
Dr. McLeod said that as videos showing police brutality against black people have appeared relentlessly on social media, they have helped persuade skeptical Americans that an endemic problem exists. “When these things accumulate over time, and we start to see more and more of these images, the evidence starts to become more incontrovertible,” he said.
These videos not only show us what police do; they show us how that differs from what police say they do. The Minneapolis Police Department initially said in a press release that George Floyd’s death stemmed from a “medical incident during a police interaction.” The video shows an emotionless officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as the victim begs for his mother and his life. Buffalo police said an elderly protester “tripped and fell”; a video shows he was pushed by two officers wearing face shields and carrying batons. The Texas cop who pulled Sandra Bland out of her car said he was afraid; the video Bland took of her own arrest shows that he was angry—and she was the one who was exhibiting fear.
The tragedy is that these videos could not save the life of George Floyd, or of any of the other victims of police brutality who have come since. Images alone cannot substitute for action. But they can be a motivating force—a rallying point for a ground-up movement demanding change.
There is already some evidence that this has begun: In a handful of large cities that have adopted reforms designed to reduce the use of force—including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—police killings have dropped in recent years. The data, according to a FiveThirtyEight report on trends in police killings, suggest that “reforms may be working in the places that have implemented them. Many of these reforms were initiated in response to protests and public outcry over high-profile deaths at the hands of police.”
Abusive officers recently caught on video, meanwhile, are being swiftly disciplined: The two Buffalo officers who pushed the elderly protester were suspended without pay. All four officers involved in the incident that led to Floyd’s death have already been charged. The officer whose chokehold resulted in Eric Garner’s 2014 death, in contrast, wasn’t fired until 2019.
Minneapolis, meanwhile, is backing out of negotiations for a new contract with its police union. And when cameras aren’t present, it’s a point of contention: Among the causes for outrage in the police killing of Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid in Louisville, Kentucky, this year is that the cops weren’t wearing body cameras. Going forward, the city will require police to wear them. Earlier this month, the city’s police chief was relieved from duty after it was discovered that officers involved in a separate shooting did not activate their cameras.
It’s true that some studies have found that body cameras do little to alter police behavior. The look of cold, almost bored, indifference on the face of the officer who knelt on Floyd, despite the conspicuous presence of onlookers filming the incident, suggests the limits of video to directly change law enforcement behavior; a police department press release noted that active body cams were worn during the incident.
The numerous videos showing police abuse during demonstrations against police abuse provide more evidence that cameras alone don’t stop police misconduct. As Reason‘s Eric Boehm wrote, it has sometimes seemed that the nation’s police are determined to demonstrate exactly why people are protesting them in the first place.
Yet even if videos aren’t directly changing police behavior, they are almost certainly contributing to the public’s shifting perception of that behavior, bolstering the case made by activists by making it harder and harder to deny. In turn, they are putting reforms that might have seemed difficult or impossible just a few years ago within reach. On its own, filming police brutality isn’t enough. But each new clip that circulates shows us the vivid and excruciating reality of what has happened and what is happening—and demonstrates, over and over again, what desperately needs to change.