The Price of Filming Police Violence
People who filmed high-profile videos of the police killings of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others say they have faced retaliation and harassment.
Image: Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun via Getty Images
Dragana Kaurin is a human rights researcher and executive director of Localization Lab.
“Seeing it now, it’s surreal. I don’t believe it sometimes.” Kevin Moore paused for a long time, then added “I can’t get past the screams. It’s the first thing you hear in the video, Freddie screaming. When they showed the video in court they played it on mute.”
I had watched the video again, right before our interview. Freddie Gray’s agonizing cries for help as he is being carried to the police van, his legs dragging on the ground, are haunting. The prosecution had argued that the audio was irrelevant to the case.
The violent arrest of Freddie Gray on April 12th, 2015 was caught on camera by several people, but it was Gray’s friend Moore who filmed the video that would later be shown by media outlets and in court. What Moore didn’t know then was that this was just the beginning of his encounters with Baltimore police. What followed was months of police harassment, intimidation, doxing, and a false arrest after filming the Freddie Gray video.
“Those cops used to hang out outside my job, at my kid’s school, in front of the house, they’d hold their phone cameras up when I’d pass by,” he explained.
While their videos have sparked protests and community action, people behind other high-profile videos of police killings of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling have also alleged retaliation from police for filming them. Like Moore, each of them told me stories of false arrests, intimidation, physical violence, doxxing, and illegal confiscation of their phones after filming or sharing videos of police misconduct.
WITNESS, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that supports activists who document human rights abuses, has analyzed numerous instances of police retaliation against the people who filmed or shared these videos.
“We have heard everything from devices being illegally searched and confiscated, to bystanders being falsely accused of assaulting officers or interfering with an investigation,” Jackie Zammuto, US program manager of the organization, told me on the phone.
Then there are the more extreme cases of Moore and Ramsey Orta, who filmed the fatal police encounters with Eric Garner. “[They] have been repeatedly targeted and harassed by law enforcement because of the videos they filmed,” said Zammuto.
During one of several stops the police van made after the arrest, a second neighbor filmed the officers placing leg shackles on Gray’s limp body. When commanding officer William G. Porter arrived at the scene, the neighbor called out to him “Hey Porter! That’s not cool, you’ve got to get him an ambulance.” Officer Porter walked toward the neighbor and took out his stun gun, threatening to use it if he didn't leave. Surveillance video confirms the account of the neighbor, who refused to give his name in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, fearing police retaliation.
Moore, on the other hand, went directly to Baltimore Police Internal Affairs to turn his video over, offering his testimony and cooperation. When Gray died a week later from injuries sustained in the police van, city-wide protests broke out in support of Gray and his family. As he was leaving one of the protests, and just days after speaking out about police harassment and intimidation, Moore was detained at gunpoint, without charges. Two members of Copwatch, an organization which observes and documents police misconduct, were also detained. Though he was released the same night without charges, Moore says he has since been repeatedly harassed by police.
Moore said that the Baltimore police harassed him by releasing a surveillance photo of him on local TV and social media, asking for help in identifying him as a witness. The photo came out on April 24th, 11 days after Moore had spoken to internal investigators and gave a statement on video.
“You have to understand, where I come from, you don’t go to police” he explained. “I feel like they did that shit to make me look like a rat, to make people say, like ‘Hey, is this guy telling?,’” Moore said. “And if something happened to me, they wouldn’t be held responsible for it directly.”
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore Police Department's chief spokesperson, explained in an email that “there didn’t seem to be a focus on Mr. Moore specifically,” but couldn’t comment further.
Moore met Orta, the man who filmed the Eric Garner video, through Copwatch two years ago, and the two have since become close friends. “Ramsey is like the brother I always wanted,” Moore said.
Orta is currently serving a four-year sentence on weapons and drug charges that both he and Moore say are retaliatory.
“Ramsey has been arrested dozens of times since the video. I went to every one of his court dates,” Moore added. “Cases like that, man, they railroaded him and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Orta’s cellphone video of Eric Garner’s last moments on July 17th, 2014—which depicts an officer pinning Garner to the ground in a chokehold, asphyxiating him—has now been shared and viewed millions of times. Both he and Taisha Allen, the second bystander who filmed the incident, claim to have been subjected to harassment, physical intimidation, and unlawful arrest since filming the video.
"Video isn’t going to make us safer, but it will tell our story. If it made us safer you wouldn’t see Eric Garner getting choked to death, you wouldn’t see Walter Scott getting shot down like a dog. But it finally tells the truth of what really happened"
Orta told Motherboard that the night of Garner’s killing, he was woken up by officers shining a flashlight into his bedroom and around his Staten Island home. He said that during one of his arrests, an officer pointed a phone at him and said “You filmed us, so now we’re filming you.” When asked for comment on allegations of retaliation against Orta and Allen via email, NYPD’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner responded “they were arrested based on probable cause and not because they filmed the Eric Garner arrest.” The NYPD did not respond to specific questions about Orta and Allen’s allegations.
The bystander videos play an important role in “empowering communities to challenge the police narrative,” according to Arthur Reed, founder of Baton Rouge-based anti-violence group Stop The Killing. Reed explained that the dangerous pattern of retaliation has made witnesses afraid to come forth with videos like these, and that the main goal of these videos is to gain public interest and reclaim their narratives, as they feel targeted by the same system that’s supposed to be prosecuting police officers they film.
“Video isn’t going to make us safer, but it will tell our story. If it made us safer you wouldn’t see Eric Garner getting choked to death, you wouldn’t see Walter Scott getting shot down like a dog. But it finally tells the truth of what really happened.” Reed added. “In Walter Scott’s case if he would have seen the person that was filming, I’m sure he would have shot him too.”
These communities have responded to police retaliation with subversive tactics to keep safe and keep filming. While some have adopted new technology like livestreaming or designing apps for filming police, others have taken on more traditional tactics such as delaying video release and releasing them through proxies.
Because police have repeatedly lied in the aftermath of shootings—often saying a victim was "armed" or "resisted"—witnesses have begun waiting until an official narrative is released before publishing their videos. By waiting until after the police have made a statement, they can show that law enforcement narratives are often not credible
“This tactic can help present a more powerful counter-narrative and sharply juxtapose inconsistencies or lies in the report,” said Zammuto. “We saw this tactic used effectively in both the Alton Sterling and Walter Scott cases.”
Abdullah Muflahi, who owns the convenience store where Sterling was killed, witnessed the incident and its aftermath. Sterling wasn’t just a customer to Muflahi, he was a friend. Muflahi held off releasing his own cell phone footage of the shooting until after Baton Rouge Police Department had made its statement, which said that Sterling posed an imminent danger to the officers. The department claimed Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket. Officers also claimed that their bodycams didn’t capture the entire incident because they became dislodged during the confrontation, though several experts claimed that it is highly unlikely both body cameras fell off at the same time.
Muflahi’s tape showed otherwise: Sterling never reached for the gun in his pocket, his hands were up, following the officer’s orders. It also appears to show the officer throwing off his body cam, countering the claim that it had fallen off on its own. Earlier in May 2017, however, the Department of Justice dropped federal charges against the two officers involved, citing insufficient evidence. The Baton Rouge District Attorney did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment.
When backup arrived on the scene, the officers took Muflahi into custody and detained him in the back of their police car for four hours. In a phone interview, Muflahi explained that during this period he wasn’t allowed to use the restroom, and was forced to relieve himself “in plain sight, next to a neighboring building. There were people standing around, walking by, and I had no choice. They made me feel like I was the criminal.”
While Muflahi sat in the locked police car, the officers confiscated not only his store surveillance tape, but also the entire surveillance system. Police even confiscated the phone Muflahi had used to tape the shooting, but either didn’t find the video or didn’t try to delete it.
Muflahi claims that he didn’t trust police enough to hand over the video. He told The LA Times: “I want them to be locked into a narrative.”
Feidin Santana also delayed releasing his video of officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott five times in the back on April 4th, 2015. Santana was still holding his camera phone when another officer warned him to stop recording.
"I’m not going to lie and say I never regret filming it"
Initially, Santana decided not to share the video, afraid for his own safety. But after learning that police falsely claimed Scott was shot after he reached for the officer’s Taser, Santana gave the video to Scott’s family. Contrary to the police report, Santana’s video showed Scott never reached for the officer’s Taser. Instead, officer Slager walked over and dropped it next to Scott’s lifeless body after he shot him.
“I thought about staying anonymous,” Santana said on the TODAY show days after the shooting. "I thought about erasing the video, just getting out of [Charleston] and living someplace else.”
In fall of 2016, after testifying in Slager’s murder trial, Santana did just that. He told the Daily Mail that, after receiving numerous death threats, he decided to move back to the Dominican Republic. In December 2017, Slager was found guilty on federal charges, and was sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder.
Proxies and anonymous dissemination
One tactic for protecting individuals who have filmed police violence is to serve as a proxy, or post the video for someone who is afraid to come forward. Stop The Killing posts videos of police misconduct that he receives from the community. Reed says that he was responsible for posting the first video of Alton Sterling the night of the shooting, which was entrusted to him by witnesses.
“There will be consequences, and threats, and harassment” for people who post videos of police brutality online, Reed explained. “They have to think of that because they find themselves in situations they never thought of.”
By acting as a proxy and posting these videos in his community, Reed protects those who film them.
“If they are afraid, they should turn the footage over to someone who’s not afraid, who will post it for them, and bring it to the mainstream,” he said.
Other organizations are also helping witnesses release videos anonymously. The ACLU, for instance, released its Mobile Justice App in 2012, allowing users to release videos through the organization without revealing their identity. Daniel Kahn Gillmor, the Senior Technologist at the ACLU, says that more than 600,000 people have downloaded the app: It’s “encouraging people to feel confident in filming the police,” he added.
Live-streaming and Instant Witnesses
Witnesses have become increasingly sophisticated in documenting police violence by streaming the encounters live via Periscope, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, turning viewers into witnesses instantly. Diamond Reynolds caught national attention last year when she streamed the aftermath of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s fatal shooting by an officer during a traffic stop in Minneapolis. When asked about the video during the officer’s trial in June 2017, she said “I wanted to make sure if I died in front of my daughter that people would know the truth.”
There have been documented cases where police have deleted witnesses’ video evidence, like that of Kianga Mwamba, who later discovered the video was saved due to auto-backup. By live-streaming it on Facebook, Reynolds minimized that risk by making the feed instantly available to her network.
“I think that was very smart of her to live-stream it.” Reed said of her video to NPR. “That way, if they would have told her to stop recording, it wouldn't have been one of those days where they could have just made her shut her phone off.”
The considerable risk involved in filming the police is strongly felt in these communities, making individuals too afraid of retaliation to come forward on their own. As a result, there likely exists many videos containing evidence of excessive force which challenge police narratives that we have yet to see—and still many others that we may never see at all.
“I’m not going to lie and say I never regret filming it.” Moore told me. “All the bullshit, exposing myself and my family to danger, police, and government—these motherfuckers are really dangerous and they can kill you and get away with it.”
He recalled one night, when he was hanging out with Ramsey Orta, and the subject of regretting filming the deaths of their respective friends and speaking out against police misconduct came up. They recalled everything that’s happened to them since.
“After a long pause,” Moore said “we sort of looked at each other, like ‘Nah, fuck no, I don’t regret it. This is the shit we were destined to do, this is what I was born to do—fighting for people’s rights.”