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Opinion: I Don't Watch Police Brutality Videos (and You Shouldn't Either)

The "add muted words" section of the Twitter app with the words "officer-involved shooting" typed into the text box
Photo by Aminah Jenkins

Content warning: this article contains mentions of police brutality, death and violence.

On Friday, Jan. 27, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) released body cam footage of the moments before Tyre Nichols was killed by five officers. A sixth officer has now been identified and named for his involvement in the incident. The video provided clarity of Nichols’ encounter with law enforcement. Descriptions of the incident prior to the release has caused many to be wary of watching the video.

Any time policy brutality incidents gain national attention, a larger discussion ensues about the ethics of viewing footage of the incident. During the height of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, several articles and posts were written criticizing how videos are circulated. I haven’t willingly watched a video of police brutality since George Floyd’s death in 2020.

I vividly remember viewing the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. At 15 years old, I’d already had the talk with my parents about interacting with law enforcement as a Black person. The incidents aligned with the experiences they shared with me. However, I knew very little about how to engage with incidents that didn’t involve me. At the time, I repeatedly watched footage of people dying or being harmed by law enforcement, and shared many of the videos on my social media pages.

This altered my perception of police brutality in a way that I didn’t fully understand at the time. Many of my peers and I thought that the only way to bring attention to these issues was to post graphic videos and images of the events. It wasn’t until the death of Ahmaud Arbery that I was able to understand the detriments of this.

First and foremost, the commentary around these videos almost always dehumanizes the victim(s). People watch the incident with a near-obsessive lens, looking for any reason to support their side or debunk someone else’s. The increased sharing of these videos has caused people to lose sight of the matter at hand. In the case with Nichols, this isn’t a situation where two parties are at odds about an outcome—a person lost their life. Though it may not be intentional, viewers construct a narrative that isn’t theirs to tell as a result of watching these videos.

These videos detach how we view and discuss police brutality. News outlets often include clips in their stories to keep people up to date on developments in the incident. Covering an incident of police brutality has the power to shape community members’ perceptions. In 2006, researchers in Indianapolis found that “the more a citizen read the newspaper, the more likely [they were] to believe the officers were guilty.”

However, coverage doesn’t always provide the clarity it intended. Exposure to police brutality has been linked with days of poor mental health for Black Americans, and the number of days increased with increased exposure. In a digital age where audio and videos are frequently shared, this exposure can be uncontrollable. People have begun to share tips for how users can filter posts to avoid non consensual encounters with sensitive content.

The culmination of increased coverage and a public desire for justice has resulted in desensitization to police brutality. It turns Black death and pain into a spectacle. Police brutality incidents are some of the only times that individuals feel inclined to share uncensored, graphic content. If people can agree that this is a systemic problem with an extensive impact, they should also be mindful of how they go about sharing it. The more we watch this kind of content, the more susceptible we are to thoughtless engagement.

Beyond the ethics of viewing the footage, we must begin to question the reasoning behind them being released. Police departments argue that it’s an effort to maintain transparency. Incidents that garner public attention don’t receive the same kind of response. Some choose to share parts of the video, while others withhold footage altogether. The Associated Press found that police departments “routinely withhold video of officer-involved shootings and other incidents from the public by using a broad exemption to state-open records laws.”

This makes it difficult to trust that police departments want transparency and accountability when they don’t always make efforts to do so. Some wait months or years to release the video, others only show it to the press, and some don’t even respect the wishes of families of victims.

These videos also assume that citizens are inherently responsible for keeping officers accountable, and uphold that this burden is acceptable for people to bear. Rather than addressing the issues that community members have, it asks them to make a choice that they don’t have the power or capacity to make. Their judgment isn’t the one in question.

Ultimately, this is cherry picking which incidents deserve focus. Incidents that gain national attention often receive an expedited judicial process—including how soon videos are shared. In Raleigh, Darryl Williams was killed in police custody on Jan. 17. Despite local protests and public outcry from Williams’ family, the Raleigh Police Department still has not filed to release the body cam footage of the incident.

What videos are we deciding are worth viewing, and whose stories do we consider to be most important? If police brutality is a consistent problem, why don’t all incidents receive the same coverage, sharing, and community outcry? Families still grieve the loss of a loved one and people still have harmful encounters with law enforcement no matter how much or little attention their loved one receives.

There’s nothing that sharing or viewing the video does that can’t be done in other ways. Raising awareness about an incident can be done by giving a basic overview of the event. Change can be enacted by joining community organizations, donating and sharing resources. There are other options that fulfill purposes that don’t lead to trauma or sensationalizing brutal incidents.

By Aminah Jenkins, Editor in Chief


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