What Cell-Phone Videos Can’t Tell You About Police Treatment of Blacks


On Friday, Matt Lewis penned a well-considered, moving piece about his realizations regarding police treatment of black Americans. Here’s what he writes:

In the era of Facebook Live and smart phones, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than the fact that police brutality toward African-Americans is a pervasive problem that has been going on for generations. Seriously, absent video proof, how many innocent African-Americans have been beaten or killed over the last hundred years by the police—with little or no media coverage or scrutiny? There’s no telling the damage this has done to us collectively, not to mention the specific families and individuals that were victimized. And, of course, the long-term psychic damage transcends the physical. All sorts of negative externalities can be expected of someone who rightly feels he’s living under an occupying army.

Lewis goes on to indict white Americans for turning a blind eye to anti-black police brutality: “This default assumption that the police officer was always right is, I’m sure, what a lot of well-meaning and decent middle class white people were raised to believe…. Those days are gone. Decent Americans cannot turn a blind eye to police abuse; they just didn’t really believe the it was happening.

Lewis apparently wants to, at least in part, reverse the presumption of decency and innocence for cops policing black communities. This is somewhat understandable when you realize that in a cop-suspect confrontation, someone will be presumed guilty by the public without further evidence – either the cop or the suspect. Generally, the public acknowledges that the presumption runs in favor of the cop. In light of cellphone footage, however, Lewis wants to consider flipping that presumption. While acknowledging that most cops aren’t racist, he says that “police brutality toward African-Americans is a pervasive problem”; that’s advancing the argument that if we see a piece of cellphone footage, we should immediately assume the significant possibility of racism, without any further evidence. This accusation toward cops is simply too vague. What level of presumption of decency should cops receive? Lewis doesn’t really say.

To support his argument, Lewis seems to advance four basic premises:

  1. Smart phone footage demonstrates that police treat minorities differently;
  2. Police aren’t punished often enough for racist behavior;
  3. White people who refuse to acknowledge either of the prior two premises are part of the problem;
  4. Even if there’s a wrongful perception in the black community that (1) and (2) are true, that requires a solution.

Three of these four arguments are deeply problematic.

First, smart phone footage is by nature anecdotal. It does not reflect statistical trends. We can all acknowledge that the footage of the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting is absolutely heartbreaking and horrifying – and looks terrible for the cop. That does not mean that such incidents are commonplace. If they are, we need actual evidence of that fact.

Beyond that, cell phone footage also tends to be selective. We don’t know what happened before Philando Castile was shot, or when he was shot. We just know what happened after he was shot. Drawing hard and fast conclusions based on that might be a major mistake.

Furthermore, because cell phone footage is simply footage of behavior, there is almost never a way to tell what’s going on inside the heads of the officers. Can you watch the Philando Castile footage and determine that the cop is a racist? If so, how? How can Minnesota’s governor read the mind of the cop and say that this stop would have gone differently for a white man, without evidence? Does he know the cop?

And isn’t it possible – probable, actually – that the cellphone footage we see from racial incidents tends to be more commonplace and worse because (a) people in common confrontations with cops tend to grab their cameras for such confrontations more often, and (b) cops tend to act more aggressively – in ways that many white people don’t acknowledge – in high-crime areas, which are disproportionately minority?

Second, Lewis make the case that cops aren’t punished enough. In this case, statistics aren’t enough – we need to see which cops are let off the hook for crimes they should not be. Americans generally hate when this happens (see, for example, the Rodney King trial). Simply stating that cops regularly “get away with it” more often than other citizens is unhelpful if we don’t know the circumstances in which the cops shot suspects.

Third, Lewis implies that white people must acknowledge the feelings of black people about the police or risk becoming part of the problem. That’s certainly true with regard to historic black treatment at the hands of the police – everyone acknowledges that blacks were treated far more brutally by police until recent decades. But that’s not true now. In fact, saying that cops aren’t friendly and aren’t there to help when it comes to black people is damaging to black people, who require more law enforcement in their communities, not less. Innocent black people more than any other population require societal reinforcement that the cops are there to help – otherwise, black communities do not receive the help they need, thanks to widespread perceptions that the police are the problem.

Like Lewis, I was brought up to believe that the cops are friendly and want to help. Obviously, that isn’t always true – there are some terrible cops, just as there are some terrible members of every profession. Criminals cops should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, of course.

And it would be foolish to deny subjective experiences with police. But by the same token, it’s foolish to pretend that police are automatons. They are far more likely to behave brusquely in situations in which they are more likely to encounter aggression. Isn’t it more probable that if I lived in a high-crime community, in which police were at significantly higher risk of personal danger, I’d receive different treatment than if I lived in a low-crime community? Doesn’t that have less to do with race than the level of criminality in the community being policed?

That’s cold comfort to innocents who have to deal with harsher treatment from police. But that doesn’t meant he solution is to label the police racist, or to accept the notion that the presumption of innocence doesn’t apply with the cops.

Which brings us to the fourth premise: that we require a solution based on perceptions of racism. Certainly that’s true. And Lewis’ suggestion that we all back body cams is fair – pretty much everyone already does. But it doesn’t go far enough. If we truly want to end the widespread fear of cops, pretending that statistical outliers are representative of broad trends doesn’t do it. When the president goes on television and states that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile weren’t “isolated incidents,” he’s not just statistically wrong – he’s forwarding an immoral view of the universe that will result in more dead people, both cops and innocents. The solution to cop-community conflict is safe communities. That requires more cops. And instead of ripping all cops, the solution is shockingly simple: rule of law. When cops do bad things and we have evidence of it, we prosecute them and condemn them. When cops don’t, we don’t. Intellectual honesty and compassion — on all sides – is the best solution to a problem that won’t be solved with grand statements about systemic problems.

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