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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Video Evidence and Sporting Events

I suppose this was inevitable: Video evidence of alleged public police unconstitutional conduct hits the sports world. Last weekend, East Carolina beat West Virginia in football. ECU fans rushed onto the field to celebrate the victory, encountering police along the way. Only one arrest was made, but more than a dozen complaints of excessive force were made and are being investigated.

And, because video phones and small cameras are ubiquitous, especially among college students and young people, there are many videos from many different sources capturing different parts of the melee.

To its credit, ECU is taking the investigation very seriously and has announced at least preliminary indications that excessive force was used in at least some incidents.

Part of the reason for ECU taking this so seriously is the existence of multiple videos from multiple sources--videos that thousands of people have seen on YouTube. ECU officials have more than the word of the victims or even people who watched amid the swarm of people. Video persuades more powerfully than oral explanation and that power holds the attention of public officials who must respond to public incidents such as this and to the public that can "witness" the events. Video is not as conclusive as we often believe it is. But it is very beneficial in driving the conversation about, and public response to, recorded events.

We can see the difference between these two uses of video by looking at the top video, a four-second clip of a deputy repeatedly hitting a fan who is lying on the ground--this is the incident that one ECU official labeled "sickening in nature." But the video is not complete, limited by its frame and perspective--we cannot see the person on the ground and we cannot see what he is doing. It thus would be problematic to allow this video to become the evidentiary be-all, end-all in litigation (especially the § 1983 actions that are forthcoming), without regard to the officer's (and victim's) explanations for what was going out just out of the camera's range and the video's image.

This incident also demonstrates the reality of current police responses to crowd control and the problems these create. According to ECU police officials, their strategy (in anticipation of a victory) was to deter students from running onto the field by showing a presence, but not necessarily to physically engage the students who (inevitably) make it onto the field, at least so long as they merely are celebrating and not confronting members of the other team. Unfortunately, game security was provided by officers from five jurisdictions, some of which appear to utilize different training methods and strategies when it comes to handling large crowds moving into a space (here, the field) where they do not belong. There also appear to be examples of officers reaching into the stands to confront and control students (check around ans after the :34 mark on the third video). This is part of the more confrontational approach that law enforcement takes to handling even peaceful crowds, often involving a very quick escalation into physical confrontation and arrests.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 10, 2008 at 10:17 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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