Boiling Point: How Real-Time Video Is Changing Public Perception Of Policing

By Heather van Blokland
Published: Thursday, July 30, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, July 30, 2020 - 12:15pm

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In the five-part series "Boiling Point: Policing In Arizona At A Crossroads," KJZZ examines policing in Arizona, from the Wild West to the current day, exploring the complex intersection between race and policing, the culture of law enforcement, the impact of modern technology — and what lies ahead. In part four of this series, KJZZ  looks at how the prevalence of video footage — both from civilian smartphones and police-worn body cameras — is shedding new light on violent encounters and changing perceptions of law enforcement.  

Activists speak
Heather van Blokland/KJZZ
Activists speak out on behalf of Dion Johnson at Phoenix press conference in July 2020.

A cellphone camera caught the police-killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A 17-year-old high school junior filmed the event and posted it to Facebook. The nearly 10-minute video streamed around the world in seconds. Within minutes, thousands of people in hundreds of cities spoke out to protest police violence and demand police reform. Rebroadcasts pinged into downloads, web pages and conversations on TV and radio networks, changing what we know about policing. 

Audrey Jensen is a breaking news Intern at the Arizona Republic and student at Arizona State University. She covered a protest in Tempe on Monday night that was organized, in part, to demand justice for Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old Black man shot and killed by a Department of Public Safety trooper in late May. 

Seven people were arrested, including one of the protest organizers, Darien Barrett, founder of Tempe Against Police Violence. Jensen captured it all on her cellphone, posting photos and videos to her Twitter feed, including live footage of Barrett’s arrest. As she followed protesters being arrested by police, people followed her.

“About 200 or 300 more followers than I had before the protest. A lot of comments, and I still see that people are sharing and commenting on the pictures and videos,” said Jensen. 

Kaila White Roberts is Jensen's editor and a breaking news editor for the Arizona Republic.

“And she messaged me privately and said ‘hey I know that’s Darien. I was talking to him earlier today. Can I tweet this video of him getting arrested?’ And I said ‘Yes, and you can name him because people want to know if the people that they know are getting arrested. They want to know who is getting arrested and why. They want to see the nature of the arrest because there’s so much interest around every detail of every individual arrest,” said White.

Cellphone cameras get footage to the public faster and in some cases, it’s the only way police actions have been shared with the public. Often, body cam video when recorded, is not released immediately — like in the police killing of George Floyd and here with the arrests in Tempe — where body cam video is only available through a public records request. 

In the case of Dion Johnson, Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers don’t wear body cameras. Phoenix police investigated the actions of the DPS trooper but the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has not yet determined if it will file charges against him. The delay, in part, is because of lack of video evidence. 

“That’s another Black death in our community. That’s another police killing in our local Phoenix community,” said Mathew Sandoval, honors faculty fellow at Arizona State University, specializing in race and democracy. “So sad that the police had to kill another Black man today but looks like he was resisting and got what he quote unquote deserved. That tends to be a narrative in the United States when we don’t have the video evidence.”  

Erma Johnson, mother of Dion Johnson
Heather van Blokland/KJZZ
Erma Johnson, mother of Dion Johnson, arrives at a press conference on July 16, 2020, to address a Phoenix police report on her son's death.

The Johnson family says they want answers to what they see as “inconsistencies” in the official report by Phoenix police — and changes in state policies. 

“And I’d like to begin to think if we can change the law then we can change behavior and if we can change behavior, then we can change mindsets people have when they interact with people who come from different communities or different backgrounds as them,” said Arizona state Rep. Reginald Bolding. 

Bolding sponsored a bill in 2015 that would have mandated body cams for all law enforcement across Arizona — after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked nationwide unrest. 

Body cam technology has been around for a couple of decades but the push to outfit law enforcement started then, with Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old Black man, who was shot and killed by a white police officer. After the investigation, a grand jury decided not to file any charges against the officer. Protests and riots broke out in the aftermath. Michael Brown's family crusaded on a "campaign for peace" that centered on getting every police officer to wear body-worn cameras as a way to be accountable. 

The Obama administration sponsored a federal matching grant to help states expand body-worn camera use, but Arizona didn’t pass Bolding’s bill. “It was disheartening that we didn’t see that taken up by our Legislature and other different municipalities, states and counties across this country,” Bolding said.

Now, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton is pushing forward legislation to get federal funding for local jurisdictions to buy body cameras. Stanton was Phoenix mayor during the unrest in Ferguson. Now an Arizona congressman, he is proposing a federal solution to address what the state didn’t pass six years before.

Greg Stanton
Justin Stabley/KJZZ
Greg Stanton in the KJZZ studio in 2018.

“We’re going to require that police departments around the country have body cams and use those body cams if they are going to apply for federal funding. We don’t know what happened,” said Stanton, referring to the Johnson shooting. “We don’t have that evidence that we can utilize to determine whether there needs to be officer discipline or something even more serious. That’s not acceptable. That’s why the COPS accountability bill would require every department, as they seek federal dollars, to have body cams."

But, only about half of law enforcement agencies use body cams on the job, according to Michael White, is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU and definitive expert on body-worn cameras.  “To put it in plain terms, many police departments across the U.S. adopted body worn cameras because they viewed that technology as a way to avoid becoming the next Ferguson. It was a way for a police department to demonstrate transparency, reductions in use of force and reductions in citizen complaints,” said White. 

The nonprofit National Police Foundation just released its 10-year study on cameras and policing which found officers are suspicious of using body cameras initially, but that over time stored recordings can be used to exonerate officers and build public trust. 

Ultimately, revealing incidents of police misconduct is becoming easier, possible in some cases because of the proliferation of the camera. Citizen videos and apps are allowing bystanders to become part of the story. And in the case of George Floyd, these videos are what is used to hold police accountable, even when body cam footage was recorded. 

“You know a body camera does not have the ability to show you everything that happens. It does not have the ability to, you know, let you know when a person is tensing up when you are trying to arrest them, you know, those kinds of things,” said Britt London, president of Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union supporting officers. He is concerned that video will be relied on more than an officer’s account.

Meanwhile, citizen video is getting more sophisticated and its users more vigilant in monitoring law enforcement institutions. Police scanner app Citizen allows users to monitor what police are responding to and how they are responding. Live video footage uploads directly to an app. Users can get alerts about things happening near them, including marches, protests or police presence. And it allows citizen comments on an incident. More than 600,000 users have signed up for the app since June. 

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