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Criminal Justice

What to Do If You Witness Possible Police Misconduct

Viral video of an officer tackling a Black woman as she filmed the arrest of a man raises questions about what a bystander should do during police encounters.

Experts advise bystanders to use caution when recording encounters with police. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images)

Disturbing cellphone and police body camera footage of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy tackling a Black woman to the ground as she filmed the arrest of a man raises questions about how bystanders can protect themselves while documenting possible police misconduct.

In police body camera footage released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department this week, a deputy is approaching the woman, who appears to be filming the interaction on her cellphone. She can be heard saying, “You can’t touch me,” as he reaches toward her and throws her to the ground. He repeatedly tells her to “stop” as he tries to restrain her. During the June 24 incident, the deputy threatens to punch the woman in the face, and she threatens to sue him, the video shows. It’s unclear what the woman’s relationship is to the man, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna.

The sheriff’s department has launched an investigation into the incident that will include cellphone video from another bystander that has gone viral, the police body camera footage, and the store’s surveillance video. The incident comes just weeks after a Black woman in Mississippi says she was penalized for recording an officer. Civil rights attorney Jill Jefferson said a Lexington police officer pulled her from her car and snatched her cellphone after she recorded officers arresting a Black motorist. Jefferson told CNN that she already had a pending discrimination lawsuit against the city of Lexington and its police department, and believes her arrest was in response to her advocacy work.

Bystanders across the country have been on high alert to hit the record button since the fatal police encounters of Eric Garner and George Floyd. But for some eyewitnesses, including Ramsey Orta, who recorded Garner’s last moments in July 2014, it has resulted in law enforcement officers retaliating against them.

Nearly a decade after Garner’s death, bystanders are faced with uncertainty as to whether it’s worth the risk to get involved when witnessing excessive use of force, especially as states such as Arizona and Florida have enacted and introduced laws, respectively, to discourage them. Even with those legal barriers, more than half of the U.S. federal appellate courts have ruled that people are protected by the First Amendment to record police while they work, but that hasn’t stopped officers from going after those who’ve recorded them.

Capital B spoke with Keith Taylor, a retired New York City Police Department supervisor and adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Brittenay Causieestko-Lee, director of community engagement with the ​​Center for Policing Equity, for tips on how you can protect yourself.

“We know that abuse occurs,” Taylor said. “It’s what we do about it that makes a difference, and I think in communities of color, in poor communities, people are often more willing to look the other way, to believe in citizenry less, as if their poverty or their color makes them less reliable as civilian witnesses.”

What should a bystander do if they witness police misconduct?

The public has a right to protest the police but must do so without interfering with whatever tactic law enforcement is using against a suspect, Taylor says. Bystanders should also avoid touching, spitting, and using any force against an officer, or else they could get arrested themselves for obstructing governmental administration or for assault. 

“There are other ways that you can make your feelings known without endangering yourself from unscrupulous officers,” Taylor said.

But in the case of the woman in California, nothing on the video shows that she did anything other than hold her cellphone camera up.

Bystanders should keep their distance while documenting an incident and wait to file formal complaints with their city’s civilian complaint review board or the police department’s internal affairs bureau. Civilian boards don’t have the ability to discipline officers, but make recommendations for police commanders or executive staff who have the final say. If a city doesn’t have a civilian complaint review board, bystanders could hire an attorney to seek legal action for monetary damages or to request an apology. 

If a resident doesn’t know how to contact those agencies, most cities have nonemergency hotlines such as 311 in Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C., where an operator can provide helpful information to a caller 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

“You have to use situational awareness, use caution when interacting with the police in a general sense — not to say to be afraid; you don’t want to be afraid — but you want to be cognizant that if you interfere with their work, there will be cause for them to justify whatever it is they do in response,” Taylor said.

Causieetko-Lee said that being a bystander, especially a Black bystander, could be taxing on their mental health when all they can do is watch, record and save themselves to preserve a record of police brutality.

“As we’re watching, it adds another layer to that Black fatigue that already exists and impacts the mental health of our Black and brown communities, and so for elders … by watching these incidences, it can bring up triggers from being a bystander and watching the racial terrors of lynchings that took place back in the ’60s and not being able to protect and rescue and save,” she said.

But to avoid becoming a victim yourself, Causieetko-Lee urges residents to be aware of their state and local laws, adding that Arizona may have set off a chain reaction for other states to lobby for similar bills.

Whether a bystander is 8 feet or 20 feet away, what can somebody do if an officer confronts them while they’re recording an incident? 

“Use your best judgment to survive to make a formal complaint another day,” Taylor says. “It’s not to say that you can’t fight them. You can, but you just have to do it in the arenas that are acceptable and safe.”

It’s illegal for an officer to confiscate or destroy a bystander’s cellphone or camera, Taylor said, so long as the bystander is not interfering with the underlying incident. At that point, the bystander must rely on their memory to record names, badge numbers and identifying features to report the attack to the officer’s supervisor and other authorities.

Also, if law enforcement verbally tells you to step back from the scene, that doesn’t mean you have to stop recording.

“The best thing to do is, of course, continue to record” with the hopes that “the situation does not escalate in the manner like it did in California,” Causieetko-Lee said. Although you have the right to call 911 during those escalating moments to request to speak to a supervisor, the woman in California couldn’t.

“There are 18,000 police departments and all of them have different rules and regulations, even hiring practices. Some of them have not been properly vetted. They may have some of these ideologies that are not really appreciative of the diversity that we have in this country. So you have to really use caution,” Taylor said. 

Causieetko-Lee said that she could provide a list of items for bystanders, especially Black bystanders, to do to avoid becoming a victim of police brutality themselves, “but as a Black person, your chances of following those steps, doing everything correctly, and having a positive outcome have been quite slim nowadays.”

There are jurisdictions — such as in the New Orleans Police Department and Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. — that have implemented discussions and retrained their officers on the rights of bystanders to record. The Center for Policing Equity has principles and best practices recommendations for law enforcement agencies regarding crowd management.

What resources are available to inform residents of their rights?

Unless a resident consistently follows politics and watches congressional and city council hearings, there’s no way for them to independently know what rights they have until they find themselves in handcuffs.

Causieetko-Lee said it’s a disservice to the community that laws and policies on recording police are not on billboards, since not everyone has access to the internet. “I wish we had some sort of standardized policy tracker where folks can easily access that information locally, statewide, and nationally as well, but we don’t,” she said.

In the interim, she recommends that residents reach out to their elected officials “to have these conversations and better understand where we can find this kind of information, because not all of us are researchers.”

There are national organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, that have a branch in every state as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. On most of their state-designated websites, there’s a section that explains the rights residents have for various scenarios including when encountering the police.  

Causieetko-Lee also recommends reaching out to the Southern Poverty Law Center and grassroots organizations such as 1 Million Madly Motivated Moms that are dedicated to uplifting policies in your area and provide a call to action if something might negatively affect residents. The Moms organization has hosted virtual bystander training sessions — the next one is on Aug. 29 — as a part of their mission to end police violence in the country.