The video clip that was first posted on Facebook is only 15 seconds long, but that was enticing enough to quickly amass a million views, and was troubling enough to call in the NAACP to condemn a white law enforcement officer and the FBI is instigate an investigation whether excessive force had been used.
The video shows a classroom at a South Carolina school. It is photographed from three rows away, and other students sit silently and slightly slumped. The video starts as an officer stands alongside a black teenage girl. The officer is 34-year old Ben Fields, a deputy and assistant football coach at Spring Valley High in South Carolina, where the incident took place. The officer wastes little time: He throws his forearm around the girl’s neck and quickly flips her—and her desk—to the ground. She struggles a bit as the officer grabs one of her legs and drags her out of the frame of the video.
Reportedly, the officer had been summoned to the classroom because the girl refused to give up her cell phone. The incident has resulted in Fields’ suspension and national attention to what constitutes appropriate—or excessive—force in managing a student.
It also brings further into focus the use of cell phones in recording incidents of alleged law enforcement abuses—and the role those videos play in creating accountability.
Over the past couple years there have been dozens of videos which have emerged from cell phones and dash-cams that present incidents of surprising violence by law enforcement—often white officers against black men or women; almost invariably in those incidents, the officer has been suspended or disciplined, yet some legal observers questions whether it is creating more comprehensive accountability and reasonable behavior.
It has been almost a quarter-century since a grainy video was released on nightly news shows that showed a black motorist, Rodney King, being punched and kicked by several LAPD officers. For decades, black residents in Los Angeles had complained about unwarranted and group police violence against them, but the video brought a certain immediacy to those claims.
In more recent years, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras has exhibited disturbing, heavy-handed law enforcement. In the recent South Carolina incident, a couple other videos emerged after the initial posting and controversy. Additionally, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott countered that “a third video” showed the teenage girl fighting back against the deputy. It is unclear whether the sheriff department has yet to release that footage, as none of the available videos exhibit anything but different angles on Fields wrestling the teenager to the ground and dragging her several feet. (The sheriff department reportedly also countered a claim by the NAACP that the incident had racial overtones with a public statement that Dpt. Fields is dating a black woman.)
Within the context of this emerging use of technology, it is important to recognize what legal allowances are permitted for a bystander to film an event: Most simply stated, yes, citizens have the legal right to record law enforcement as long as it does not interfere with law enforcement’s job or cause a distraction. According to the ACLU, taking photos or video of incidents plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right, including filming police and other government officials carrying out their jobs.
When in public spaces where a bystander is lawfully present, he or she has the right to photograph anything in plain view. Once on private property, however, the property owner can set the rules. The rules about whether a person can film actions occurring on adjacent private property from a public sidewalk or space vary state to state.
The rules about cell phone camera are still developing as their importance in police accountability incidents continue to increase: In June 2014, in the Riley v. California, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police must obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone seized by someone who has been arrested. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, “does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”
But whether these cell phone videos can create more wide-spread accountability still remains unanswered. One early study by the US Department of Justice (2014) addresses the change in behavior by officers wearing body-cameras, and notes an 88 percent reduction in citizen complaints and a 60 percent reduction in officer use-of-force incidents after one year of camera deployment in an Arizona police department. Moreover, in Mesa, Arizona, the study found there were 40 percent fewer complaints for officers with cameras and 75 percent fewer use-of-force complaints overall.