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

“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?

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