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Copwatch 2.0: Cell Phones Usher in New Era of Police Accountability
by Raj Jayadev (svdebug [at] newamericamedia.org)
Tuesday Jan 6th, 2009 4:59 PM
From the eye of a cell phone, an outraged and shocked public witnessed the shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, Calif., by a police officer in the early morning hours of the first day of 2009. And now, as a result, a tragically common starting point of an American story -- young black male killed by law enforcement -- may be headed toward an uncommon ending point: justice being served.

OAKLAND -- From the eye of a cell phone, an outraged and shocked public witnessed the shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, Calif., by a police officer in the early morning hours of the first day of 2009. And now, as a result, a tragically common starting point of an American story -- young black male killed by law enforcement -- may be headed toward an uncommon ending point: justice being served.

On YouTube, and now local news stations that aired the cell phone videos, viewers watched a young Oscar Grant apparently pleading for his life, while belly-down on the ground with one officer's knee on his upper back or head, and another officer around his legs area. That officer, without any obvious provocation, stands up, pulls out his gun, and shoots Grant in his back.

While local Bay Area activists and journalists rightfully point out that Grant’s death shows the need for oversight of the BART police – an agency that has no accountability mechanism such as civilian oversight or an independent auditing system – what has been evidenced by Grant's case is the changed landscape of law enforcement accountability in a Web 2.0 era.

The narratives of officer-involved shootings usually conflict with the accounts of what supporters of the deceased say occurred. Simple, straight-forward, and seemingly indefensible accounts, when scripted through law enforcement lawyers, becomes muddied with additional, subjective descriptions. "The victim was unarmed and had has back turned," (which was the case with Grant) becomes, "He looked like he was reaching for something." Objects such as cell phones seem like weapons in the heat of the moment.

By the time grand jury testimonies are delivered, clear examples of a quick-triggered officer killing an innocent civilian get re-interpreted to validate the actions of the officer.

Every city knows the story of an Oscar Grant, and the almost automatic anti-climactic ending when the case hits the courts. The officers are found innocent, they go back to work, and the family of the victim is left without a son, father or brother. A community suffers the indignity of knowing a grave injustice has been done without any reprisal.

Such was the case of Jerrold Cornelius, a 19-year-old who was killed by BART police in 2001. Cornelius was shot in the back of the head.

But while the basic pattern of these two case is similar – unarmed young black men with their backs turned, posing no threat to the officer – Oscar Grant has something Cornelius did not: thousands of witnesses worldwide.

The officer who shot Oscar Grant has still, a week after the incident, refused to give his account of the shooting. And in keeping with the pattern of officer-involved shootings, that well-vetted account, when released, will be laden with all of the legal devices to vindicate his actions. He may say he saw Grant reaching for the officer's gun, or that he saw a metal flash around the young man's waistband.

The videos captured by onlookers at the BART train when Grant was killed may be the saving grace for the Grant family, which has initiated a civil suit and is pressing for criminal charges against the officer. Any re-inventions of the incident that try to paint Grant as anything other than a victim will have the sizable challenge of having to contradict actual video footage.

There has been a fundamental shift since 1992, when video evidence was not enough to convict the four police officers who beat Rodney King. It was just by chance that someone was able to catch the King beating on tape in 1991. Now, it’s a likelihood that an incident will be captured on camera. And while this won’t change the legal system, it could change the decision-making process of a law enforcement agent in that critical moment.

The video-makers and YouTube producers, Karina Vargas and other unidentified civilians, have become "copwatchers" – a term referring to the activists who monitor police practices as a way to reduce law enforcement violence.

The practice was a reaction by communities who felt a need to hold law enforcement accountable, and used by the Black Panthers in Oakland in the 1970s, the Community Alert Patrol in San Jose in the early 80s, and has taken off internationally in recent years after the resurrection of the practice in Berkeley.

But while “copwatch” was previously defined by a smaller group of dedicated activists, today it is intregrated into public life as a result of technologies such as cell phones and YouTube – and the consequential social impulse to record, load and share. In a world likely unimaginable by those who started the practice, everyone on the street is now a potential copwatcher.

The impact of such a possibility means that – regardless of the how this particular case plays out – BART police officers will know that they can become a YouTube star in a heartbeat for being overly aggressive, violent or lethal. Lives may literally be saved from the communication potential of our 2.0 reality.