We’ll probably never know what happened in the moments before a Minnesota police officer fired his gun into the car of Philando Castile on Wednesday night. There’s no video from police. There’s no video from a bystander. The only video available is from Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who started live-streaming from her phone as she sat next to him, watching him die.
We probably also won’t know exactly when Castile was warned not to reach for his identification, as an officer later insisted on the video. We won’t know if Castile was putting his hands up before being shot, as Reynolds said in response.
We do know this: Another black man has died at the hands of a police officer or officers. Another horrifying video shows the victims’ final moments, the cries of witnesses, the blood.
It is, in fact, the second video this week. Just one day before, cell phone video captured the moments before and after Alton Sterling was shot in front of a Baton Rouge convenience store.
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Once again, we’re wondering how this keeps happening in this country.
There’s no simple answer to that, of course, but here’s something else we know: The St. Anthony, Minn., officer who shot Castile on Wednesday was not wearing a body cam. His city was among 16 in Minnesota trying to settle whether the footage from such cameras should be public. Some of those cities did not plan to outfit their officers with body cams until the issue was resolved.
It’s a debate that’s going on across the country, including in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory is considering an ill-advised bill that allows police broad authority to withhold body cam and dashboard footage from the public.
That footage should be public record, with a few exceptions, such as when the release would undermine a criminal investigation or jeopardize someone’s right to a fair trial. Otherwise, making footage public brings transparency to law enforcement interactions with the public, which helps build trust between police departments and their communities. It also can be instructive, not only in lethal shootings but in non-lethal situations that might help improve policing and save lives later.
Let’s be clear, however, that body cam footage is not a magic solution to the kinds of police shootings we saw again this week. Even with two videos of Alton Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge, some questions remain unanswered. We can’t see how much Sterling resisted arrest, for example, or if he had a gun, or if he was reaching for one.
What the video did show is that officers seemed to face no imminent threat, certainly not one that justified a lethal response. None of which might have been known if two people hadn’t held up their phones to record the incident. (Baton Rouge police said the altercation with Sterling knocked the officers’ body cams loose.)
It’s a reminder that perhaps most of all, the value of video is that it makes everyone more accountable. In the wake of two more tragedies, police everywhere need to examine once again how seemingly minor interactions can end in death, and whether race might have anything to do with it. That examination is more likely to happen if another set of eyes is watching, too.