Protestors famously chanted, “The whole world is watching” as network news cameras captured scenes of police violence. It was the raucous summer of 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention. Chicago police, nightsticks in hand, went to work on demonstrators and reporters with blithe indifference to the emerging power of film and video.
Those damning images, 180 hours of footage, would become integral to an investigation by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence which concluded that the incident was a “police riot.”
Forty-seven years later, the iconic slogan has become a reality of modern police work. It’s no longer about the occasional scenes of apparent misbehavior captured by professional news crews. Not when nearly every citizen on nearly every street corner has a video app on his smart phone. The whole world is watching and re-watching and posting and sharing.
Yet, incredibly, more than a few cops remain oblivious to the ubiquity of video cameras. Either oblivious or just damn indifferent. “The guy looked right at my camera and he still kept dragging her. It was brazen,” said William Gelin, the lawyer who recorded a Broward County detention officer dragging a screaming woman by her ankles down a corridor at the Broward Courthouse.
Gelin told me Wednesday that he had been in a courtroom Monday morning when he heard the anguished cries of a distressed woman. He looked out and saw Deputy Christopher Johnson dragging Dasyl Jeanette Rios, 28, pulling her along the hallway by her leg shackles, as if she was a bag of debris.
“I started recording,” Gelin said.
The mentally ill Rios had just attended a hearing where she had been declared incompetent to stand trial on trespass and criminal mischief charges. After the hearing, she descended into an sobbing wreck — behavior not unexpected among the mentally ill. A few minutes later, the impatient Deputy Johnson’s dehumanizing removal technique went viral.
Gelin, a blogger and well-known critic of the Broward criminal justice system, said that the deputy’s behavior only reflected the cynical culture around the courthouse. “He probably didn’t think for two seconds that he was doing anything out of order.”
Except, Johnson’s performance was seen well beyond the courthouse. The video, with the wrenching soundtrack (“Stop! You're hurting me! You're ----ing hurting me! I hate my life! I wish they would kill me already! Why do I have to be alive?”) zapped around the world, leaving a contrail of outrage. By that evening, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel announced an internal affairs investigation. He said the deputy had been relegated to “restricted duty.”
Just the day before, a cellphone cam had captured Fort Lauderdale Police Office Victor Ramirez rousting Bruce Laclair, a 58-year-old homeless man who had been sleeping on a bench at the county bus terminal. A bystander shot video of the two having words followed by the startling sight of 34-year-old Ramirez slapping Laclair in the face. Slapping him hard.
The slap went viral. By Tuesday, Ramirez was on administrative leave and the city manager and police chief — knowing that the whole world was watching — called a press conference to denounce such conduct.
These local videos were just the latest of a steady stream of incriminating images of questionable police behavior that has reverberated across the Internet. Last week, Baltimore police were forced to respond to a minute-long video that appears to show a city cop roughing up a young man for no apparent reason. Just after another caught-on-camera video showed a Baltimore police officer punching out a man at a bus stop.
San Francisco police were trying to explain video of an officer shoving a wheelchair-bound man into traffic. And Columbia, South Carolina, police were forced to investigate the images of a city policeman pounding a man after no apparent provocation.
A Denver cop was taped as he treated a store owner like a criminal, after the merchant had made a 9-1-1 call for help. Meanwhile, the Cleburne, Texas, police department was trying to defend an officer shown on a cellphone video shooting and killing a seemingly friendly dog.
Victoria, Texas, police placed an officer on administrative leave after a video surfaced showing him Tasering a 76-year-old man who had been stopped because his car had an expired inspection sticker. Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig uttered the obvious and much repeated admission by police administrators coping with the cellphone age. He said the video “raises some concerns.”
They go on and on. While the public wonders what kind of police misbehavior went unremarked before citizen cellphones were on the job.
Police departments protest that these snippets shot by passersby often fail to show the provocations that led to the what only looks like rogue police reactions. The answer to that problem is more video — mandatory body cams for police officers that reveal the entire, uncensored, unedited footage of police-public interactions.
Surely, cops outfitted with body cams would finally act mindful that in 2015 their confrontations are likely to come under video review.
It’s not just a 1960s slogan anymore. With iPhones in easy reach, indeed, the whole world is watching.