As protesters continue to occupy the streets around the U.S., many are filming police brutality. If you are in a situation with the cops or witnessing one that has the potential to turn violent, whether at a protest or simply while out in your community, you should be prepared to take video and document events with your smartphone. While taking a video isn’t that difficult — we do it every day — recording police brutality or other atrocities comes with a whole set of concerns that many of us don’t have to face on a daily basis.
Over the years, unfortunately, many have suffered retaliation for filming the police and releasing the footage. Taisha Allen was assaulted by police and arrested after recording Eric Garner’s death. Ramsey Orta, who also filmed Garner’s death, and his family members were allegedly harassed for years; eventually police got revenge on Orta with his imprisonment. Kevin Moore was harassed, doxxed and falsely arrested by the Baltimore Police Department after filming the arrest of his friend Freddie Gray. Witnesses have even been ticketed and arrested for merely sitting in their cars and recording. More recently, a security guard was shot at by police while filming the beating of a protester from inside a building from afar. The individual who recorded the fallout of a 7-year-old being pepper-sprayed in Seattle was arrested.
All of these instances taken together should make it very clear: If you film the police and your identity is known, it is highly probable that you will be retaliated against in some form. You need to be careful, not only in how you record a video, but also in what you do with it afterward. Special consideration should be given to distancing yourself from use of the video.
(Some great guides are already out there on how to safely record the police, particularly this guide by the senior U.S. program coordinator at the human rights organization WITNESS and this one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on your rights to film the police. So we’ll keep this section short.)
To make sure the police or someone else can’t take your phone and delete your documentation, make sure you are using at least a six-digit password, instead of face unlock or your phone’s fingerprint scanner. In the U.S., you can’t be legally compelled to give out your password without a warrant, whereas someone could always physically put your finger on your phone or force your face up to the phone to unlock it. Be sure to set your phone to auto-lock relatively quickly as well, so it can’t easily be accessed once the display goes to sleep.
Make sure you’ve enabled automatic backup to the cloud of videos and photos on your phone, ideally via your cellphone’s data connection. This way, if your device is confiscated or destroyed, you’ll still have a copy you can access later on. Automatic backups were invaluable for Kianga Mwamba, for instance, who luckily had a cloud backup of a video that appeared to be deleted from her phone after she was arrested. Some popular options for this are iCloud, Google Photos and Dropbox.
Now comes the hard part — what to do with the video you’ve recorded. You’re likely to be angry and scared after witnessing a scenario like the ones mentioned above, but doing your best to slow down for a few hours to decide what to do can help you stay safe. There are many ways to distribute videos, but you need to consider what will have the most impact and be the most ethical while protecting yourself from retaliation. First and foremost, don’t just put it up on your social-media account. Work with someone who has experience to get the documentation out safely.
Keep in mind, the most ethical choice is to get in contact with the victim or the victim’s family and let them decide how the video is used. The video could play a role as evidence in a legal case. It might be possible to have a mutual connection or a lawyer reach out to the family or their lawyer, so you can safely contact them without disclosing your identity. There are also ethical questions about who was recorded and whether they want their identities shared. By reaching out to those in the video, you can let them decide what is shared and how it is shared, rather than deciding for them. Should faces of bystanders or potentially identifying clothing or tattoos be blurred out before sharing? Your ethical choices in this moment are crucial.
In some cases, the family might want to wait until after the police have released their version of events, then use the video as evidence to discredit the police’s account. This is exactly what happened when Feidin Santana filmed Walter Scott’s killing. With his own lawyer, Santana worked with the family to release the video he had recorded of Scott’s murder, which discredited the police narrative that Scott had grabbed the officer’s Taser, something that never happened. By biding their time and being methodical with the release of the video, Santana made sure that the police were caught in their lie.
Santana’s choice to work with a lawyer was key. This is almost always a good idea for someone who has such strong evidence against law enforcement. A lawyer can help you weigh the pros and cons of pathways you might take to releasing information. They can also act as a go-between for you, using attorney-client privilege to protect your identity and help release and distribute the video on your behalf.
If the victim or their family isn’t available, or a video needs to be released quickly, approaching a trusted journalist or an advocacy organization in your area focusing on police brutality might be a good way to make an impact. Consider contacting them anonymously through a lawyer or through a secure messenger app such as Signal or Wire, or by setting up a new anonymous email account with a provider such as ProtonMail. Approach journalists or advocacy organizations that have a history of covering police brutality, ones that offer a secure means of contacting them, and in particular, organizations or individuals that you believe you can trust to consider your best interests.
Try to keep your identity hidden. There is no reason to make the story about you if you can help it. Keep the story focused on the atrocities you are trying to expose, rather than your story. This can protect you and help you avoid retaliation. Again, this means avoiding posting the video on your own social media accounts if at all possible.
Your own social media account should be a last resort. If you see no other option than to release a video or photos on social media, uploading your materials to a new anonymous Twitter or Facebook account is better than doing it from your own account. Better yet, work with a community group that posts documentation of police brutality. During the latest wave of protests in the U.S., a few projects have tried to compile video documentation shared on social media, most notably the Google Sheet titled “GeorgeFloyd Protest – police brutality videos on Twitter.” The spreadsheet has become a clearinghouse for video documentation. By working with one of these new community projects or an advocacy organization such as Justice Committee or WeCopwatch, you can remove identifying info from your distribution and also hopefully reach a wider audience that can amplify the impact of the video.
There is perhaps one reason to release what you have in your own name and identify yourself. In some very special circumstances, going public can offer protection. Edward Snowden was famously public about releasing the NSA documents he had taken with him. By going public, he made it so the world saw him, offering him a type of protection against extreme retaliation and any governmental attempts at a cover-up. Consider carefully whether and how to reveal your own identity when releasing sensitive information.
Though it may not be best to protect your identity, especially when you’re at a protest, saving location metadata with any video when it’s taken can be important evidence in court. The longer the video and the more embedded information it has — such as time, date, location and names — the more powerful it will be in court. You can always remove metadata from a copy of the video before you share it, leaving the metadata stored in your backup.
Be safe out there, and watch out for each other. The community must first protect itself.
Two caveats to this article: 1. This advice is directed towards those in the U.S. filming the police; this advice is not appropriate for everyone in the world who might film such actions. So many different factors and risks are at play that advice must be targeted towards specific circumstances. For example, threats and risks faced by someone at a protest in Lebanon will necessarily differ from those faced by someone in Minneapolis. 2. Because of systemic racism in the U.S., white allies are less likely to be harassed or retaliated against by the police. As an ally, you should step up and document injustices when you see them.
Definitely consult the many great resources out there, particularly tools and resources from WITNESS. To be prepared, read more, get involved and share this knowledge with others. Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, you never know when it might come in handy.