This post is based on an excerpt from Michael Tchong’s book, Ubertrends.
The excessive force applied to George Floyd’s neck led him to utter, “I can’t breathe” 28 times. Just two weeks later, this police brutality was followed by yet another incriminating video, the June 12 fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer.
Incidences of police brutality captured on video made their ominous debut with one of the most notorious cases of mistreatment of a black man by police, the beating of Rodney King. It was the first, and certainly not the last video, involving blacks.
It all started on Sunday, March 3, 1991 at 12:30 am, when Rodney King was speeding at 115 mph (185 kph) in the westbound lanes of Los Angeles’ Foothill Expressway in his white Hyundai. After a brief car chase, King was ordered to lie on the ground.
As King laid on the ground, at least four Los Angeles Police Department officers began beating and kicking him. Unbeknownst to the police, one of the many witnesses watching from the balconies of Mountainback Apartments on Foothill Boulevard was George Holliday, who used his brand-new Sony Handycam video camera to record the incident. In the 81 seconds of video footage captured by Holliday’s camcorder, police are seen kicking and clubbing King 56 times.
Holliday, the owner of an L.A. plumbing company, sent the video to local news station KTLA and it ended up being broadcast by CNN the next day. Holliday’s video was a milestone, widely considered the first example of citizen journalism. It was also the first “viral video,” although it would be another 14 years before YouTube would see the light of video.
It was the first time excessive police force and brutality received extensive media coverage. That was partly due to the graphic nature and brutality of the content but also because Holiday made his video available to the press. It was the departure point of the Voyeurgasm Ubertrend, which is ushering in a future where just about everything will be captured by smartphones, action-, dash- or security-cam video.
When the four accused officers were tried a year later, a jury found them not guilty despite the videotaped evidence. A TIME/CNN survey conducted shortly after the verdict found that 57% of those polled felt the outcome was the result of racism. The acquittals ignited the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the worst U.S. rioting since the 1960s.
In six days of violence, including arson, assaults, looting and murder, beginning April 29, 63 people were killed, 2,383 injured, more than 12,000 arrested, and property damage topped $1 billion. Local police, supported by Governor Pete Wilson’s California National Guard, was unable to control the situation. On May 1, President George H. W. Bush deployed the 7th Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division to restore peace and order.
Incredibly, the U.S. does not maintain a comprehensive public database of police shootings. A report by Anthony Bui and colleagues of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA used “The Counted,” a compilation of media reports of police killings by The Guardian to arrive at 1,146 police killings in 2015 and 1,092 in 2016. Not surprisingly, African-Americans are twice as likely to die at the hands of police compared to whites — a rate of 7.2 per million compared to 2.9 per million, respectively.
It’s impossible to estimate how many police shootings have been captured on video in the past 28 years, but that figure has increased significantly since the arrival of the smartphone. Mother Jones compiled a graphic tally in 2015 of 13 police killings captured on video during the past year.
Newsone published a list of 46 black men and boys, who all except one, Trayvon Martin, were killed by police from December 2011 to July 2018. Of that list, nine killings, or 20%, were captured on video: Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Charly Keunang, Walter Scott, Brendon Glenn, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher.
Police Officer Convictions
In an extremely rare outcome, former Texas police officer Roy Oliver was convicted of murder for the shooting of unarmed, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in April 2017. According to The Associated Press, fewer than 90 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for police shootings since 2005.
Based on “The Counted,” that number would be significantly higher (main story). Less than half were convicted or pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Even rarer is a guilty verdict: That has happened only five other times in the past 13 years in cases involving non-federal law enforcement officers — and four of those convictions were overturned, according to Bowling Green State University criminologist Phil Stinson.
It can only be hoped that the huge protest movements that have reached every U.S. state and several countries around the world, including the U.K., Australia, South Africa and Brazil, will create the pervasive change that is needed to rid America of its police state.