Video has changed police accountability
PHILADELPHIA - The case against Philadelphia Police Inspector Joseph Bologna, charged with assaulting a Temple University student, will eventually be made in court. But an earlier venue was the Instagram account Peopledelphia, where Brendan Lowry posted video of the alleged assault, called out Bologna by name, and asked his 107,000 followers to submit any additional footage of what happened.
Now, Lowry is again calling for submissions from I-676, where hundreds of protesters were pelted with rubber bullets, tear gas and other munitions as they fled police. Video showed, among other things, an officer pulling down protesters' masks to spray chemicals into their faces, and another shooting rubber bullets at passing skateboarders. According to Mayor Jim Kenney, protesters were throwing rocks and shaking a police car before they were verbally ordered to disperse, and only after that was "less lethal" force deployed.
Lowry posted, "I'm confident that, collectively, we have enough photos and videos to construct a minute-by-minute timeline ... and conclusions can be made from there." Since then, he said, he has received more than 1,000 photos and videos from nearly 400 people.
"I'm having active conversations with people way smarter than me about next steps, but the city should know that we have the receipts and we have the truth," he said.
The current protest movement was, of course, spurred by a bystander video: a teenager's footage of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
But, since then, the protests around the country, and the conflicts that have ensued, have quickly made for some of the most thoroughly documented incidences of alleged police violence in history. And amateur archivists are undertaking a massive effort to catalog each and every angle - images meant to stir outrage and demand reform. Together, these images are raising the nation's consciousness of a long-standing problem in American policing that, despite many previous rounds of protest, had not fully been acknowledged.
"I definitely think the front line of accountability for police officers _ it's been the trend but moving forward after everything we've seen - is absolutely going to be people with cellphones," said Danilo Lavia, 24, who photographed and documented the protests.
It's in the collection and collation that more people recognize a systemic problem, said T. Greg Doucette, a Durham, N.C., criminal-defense lawyer and podcaster who has maintained a Twitter thread, 448-incidents long, of police brutality. (An additional 1,700 messages are in his inbox, waiting to be reviewed.)
"My focus is making sure people understand the depth, the breadth, the frequency of this stuff that's been going on for years," Doucette said. "You're just now seeing all of this concentrated into a two-week time span."
And the energy around amplifying that message has been powerful. Jason Miller, a college math professor near Los Angeles, has been logging 10-hour days putting all the instances Doucette posts into a spreadsheet, tagged by location. Another collaborator has mapped them to identify possible hot spots - much as police do to track crime.
Lowry, for one, said he had never really questioned the role of police, until he saw what happened on 676. "My eyes were opened," he said. That's why he began collecting video and photos: "Now, I need to use my platform to promote these issues and the necessary reforms. ... My goal is to hold the city accountable."
The audience for those videos includes not just curious members of the public but also civil rights lawyers, public defenders, and the district attorney's office.
Paul Messing, a civil rights lawyer representing several of the protesters who reported injuries, compared it to the investigation of excessive force by police during the protests of the Republican National Convention in 2000. (Those cases were settled with an insurance company covering the convention, and the full amounts never disclosed.) "It was a very different time. There were a couple videos," he said. This time, he said, "we believe there is very well-documented evidence that supports the claims that police acted inappropriately."
Online videos often disappear quickly, noted Michael Mellon, a Defender Association lawyer who has been cataloging footage in preparation for incoming criminal cases. That's why it's so important to act fast in archiving what's posted.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said he, too, had put out a request for video. "The wholly unjustified use of force is something we would investigate," he said, though he declined to discuss specific ongoing investigations.
In the protests, as Lowry pointed out in his post, no one participant can see all of the action. But, like a Cubist painting, the current collage of videos offers an opportunity to view every perspective at once.
One contributor, from the front of the pack, was 21-year-old Nazir Wayman, who used to skateboard almost every day in the plaza outside the Municipal Services Building, the long arm of Frank Rizzo looming overhead. "Since they took over the spot that we normally skate and filled it with police officers, we decided to join the protest," he said.
He said he entered I-676 through a hole in a fence. "The police officers moved out of the way and let everyone go in," he said. "That's how I got in there."
What happened next - the officers pointing rifles at them, firing rubber bullets, the protesters fleeing, the clouds of tear gas - his friends captured on video and Wayman quickly posted to Instagram. He wanted others to see what he saw: an officer in all black pointing a rifle at them and shooting rubber as they turned and ran, the melee that ensued as protesters stampeded to get away, the scramble as they were blinded by clouds of tear gas.
He feels confident there was no order to disperse, no violence by protesters. That's why he posted the video: "It's nice to see people are getting out the real information about what really happened."
Paul Hetznecker and Marni Snyder, who are working with about 30 other volunteer lawyers to represent many of the protesters, said many of them were wearing GoPros or were live-streaming, giving a second-by-second account that they believe will provide the full context of what occurred.
"This was an almost military-style entrapment," Hetznecker said. "There was no statement by police to disperse. There was simply an attack. ... It also harkens back to a time in Philadelphia we have not seen since the Rizzo era when police community relations were at an all-time low. It is the dangerous re-emergence of that legacy of police brutality in the city of Philadelphia."
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told City Council earlier this month the department was undertaking a thorough after-action report to review what transpired on 676.
Hans Menos, who heads the oversight board the Police Advisory Commission, said it's critical that the review is "granular."
"If they count all the canisters that were deployed, can they justify each one of them?"