A New View of Police Is Being Engrained Into the American Psyche

© Feidin Santana, via Associated Press An image from a video recorded by a passer-by in North Charleston, S.C., on April 4, moments before Walter Scott was shot as he fled from Officer Michael T. Slager.
© Feidin Santana, via Associated Press An image from a video recorded by a passer-by in North Charleston, S.C., on April 4, moments before Walter Scott was shot as he fled from Officer Michael T. Slager.

They began as workaday interactions between the police and the public, often involving minor traffic stops in places like Cincinnati, North Charleston, S.C., and Waller County, Tex. But they swiftly escalated into violent encounters. And all were captured on video. 

Those videos, all involving white officers and black civilians, have become ingrained in the nation’s consciousness — to many people, as evidence of bad police conduct. And while they represent just a tiny fraction of police behavior — those that show respectful, peaceful interactions do not make the 24-hour cable news — they have begun to alter public views of police use of force and race relations, experts and police officials say.

Videos have provided “corroboration of what African-Americans have been saying for years,” said Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, and a former prosecutor, who called them “the C-Span of the streets.” On Thursday, the family of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man who was shot to death by a University of Cincinnati police officer on July 19, said the officer would never have been prosecuted if his actions had not been captured by the body camera the officer was wearing.

To the police, that poses a new challenge in trying to regain public confidence. “Every time I think maybe we’re past this and we can start rebuilding, it seems another incident occurs that inflames public outrage,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “Police officers literally have millions of contacts with citizens every day, and in the vast majority of those interactions there is no claim of wrongdoing, but that’s not news.”

Some polling bolsters such concerns. In a Gallup national survey conducted in June, 52 percent of people said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, down from 57 percent two years earlier, and 64 percent in 2004. In 2007, 37 percent of Americans had high confidence that their local police would treat blacks and whites equally, the Pew Research Center found, but last year, that was down to 30 percent.

At the same time, video may be changing the way prosecutors handle cases in which the police are accused of misconduct. Not only can video contradict an officer’s account of what happened, it can also create immense public pressure for action against officers. Such was the case with fatal police shootings in North Charleston and Cincinnati, and with the arrest in Baltimore of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries he suffered while in police custody. In all three cases, prosecutors brought rare murder charges against officers within days — remarkable speed for a process that in the past could take weeks or months. Those swift actions have been applauded by many African-Americans.

But some prosecutors have raised concerns the public outcry generated by video can also put pressure on prosecutors to file charges. “We don’t want to rush to judgment simply because of what the video shows,” said Peter Weir, district attorney for Jefferson and Gilpin Counties, in Colorado, who says he believes police body cameras enhance public trust in the system.

In the Cincinnati case, video from a camera worn by a University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, provided crucial evidence, and contradicted the officer’s official account, in the July 19 shooting death of Mr. DuBose. A grand jury indicted Mr. Tensing, who was released by the university police department on Wednesday, on charges of murder and manslaughter. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday in Hamilton County Municipal Court, and Judge Megan E. Shanahan set his bail at $1 million. Mr. Tensing later made bail and was released.

There are no definitive figures, but officials say that most police forces do not use body cameras, or use them on a very limited basis. But according to a 2013 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group, about one in four of its member forces regularly used body cameras. And the number is rising quickly as the federal government provides grants for cameras, said Lindsay Miller, a senior research associate at the group.

San Diego has equipped hundreds of its police officers with cameras, and is expanding that program, while Los Angeles recently decided to put cameras on all of its patrol officers, but has not yet done so. New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and other cities have trial programs, using them on a small number of officers.

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Source: The New York Times | RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA and TIMOTHY WILLIAMS

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