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United States

After Sterling, Castile shootings, a renewed focus on filming the police

Bystanders’ recordings can help officials investigate killings
7 Jul 2016 – 04:48 PM EDT
Still images from video show Alton Sterling as he is shot dead by police during an incident captured on the mobile phone camera of shop owner Abdullah Muflahi in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 5, 2016. Crédito: Abdullah Muflahi/REUTERS

Once again, the deaths of two black men by police this week have been brought to public attention through the use of cell phone video. Grainy and chaotic, a July 5 video shows Alton Sterling tackled and pinned to the ground by multiple police officers outside a Baton Rouge convenience store before he’s shot multiple times. And in a grisly video published Wednesday night, Philando Castile's head arches backward while he lies dying in a car next to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who tells the camera via Facebook Live that he’s been shot by a police officer four times. Her four-year-old daughter sits in the back seat.

According to data from The Counted, a project of the Guardian, Castile was the 561st person killed by U.S. police this year. Last year, 1,146 people were killed by police.

Across the country, the killings of Latinos by police have also been caught on camera. In one video from Washington state from February 2015, 35-year-old orchard worker Antonio Zambrano-Montes, originally from Mexico, lifts his hands in the area before he’s shot and killed by three police officers after allegedly throwing rocks at cars and police.

According to Guardian data, last year 195 Hispanics were killed by police. So far this year, that number is 86.

Cargando Video...
El momento en que agentes de la policía le disparan a Alton Sterling en Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Though police officers often demand onlookers turn off their cameras, or even attempt to confiscate or destroy phones, it is perfectly legal to film police carrying out their duties in a public place, as long as it does not interfere with their ability to do their jobs.

In an effort to protect that constitutional right, the ACLU and other organizations have launched campaigns in recent years to encourage people to surveil and document police activities. In New York City, the Latina/Latino-led organization Justice Committee runs a “Cop Watch” program that’s intended to train people to monitor police in a safe and effective manner.

And a number of apps have also been launched to make it easier to videotape incidents and quickly send them to a secure place in order to avoid the danger of footage disappearing if a phone is confiscated. Among the most used apps are CopWatch, by the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, and the ACLU’s Mobile Justice.

As evidenced by Reynolds’ livestream Wednesday night, live video may be the latest – and most immediate – way to share footage, through streaming apps like Facebook Live, Periscope and YouNow.

If you find yourself in a position to take video of an incident involving police, the ACLU offers the following advice:

  • Keep a respectful distance, as a police officer could prevent you from recording if he/she believes that this interrupts or affects his/her police work. You are entitled to remind the officer of your rights.
  • Capture as much information as you can, ideally in one continuous shot.
  • Avoid sudden movements or gestures.
  • Find out if your state regulates audio recording. If you break state law, you could be arrested.
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