Witnesses play a crucial role in bringing awareness to the long-standing issue of police brutality toward the Black community in this country.
In the case of George Floyd — the Black man who died on May 25 after Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — witnesses begged the officer to let up, but ultimately their pleas couldn’t save his life. Video footage of the incident, however, has helped hold Chauvin accountable for his abuse of power. (At the time of publication, Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, while the other three officers who were present have not yet been charged. All four have been fired.)
This tragedy has sparked an important conversation about what you should and shouldn’t do if you witness police brutality firsthand. Below, experts offer advice on how you can safely do your part.
Safety is paramount. And the risks of intervening are greater for people of color.
While any onlooker could potentially be putting themselves in harm’s way by witnessing or documenting police misconduct, minorities are especially vulnerable. So it’s important to be aware of the potential dangers involved.
“I’m hesitant to say anybody should step in, because I don’t want people’s lives to be risked, but I do think there is a role, especially for white allies,” Paige Fernandez, policing policy adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union, told USA Today. “If they see an incident of police brutality happening, I think they absolutely have to step in and say something, just because officers often interpret black and brown people as threats for absolutely no reason, other than deep-seated racism.”
You’re allowed to film the encounter — but police may try to stop you anyway.
According to the Legal Aid Society website, “You have a right to record the police as long as you are not interfering with the discharge of their law enforcement duties.” Note that this right applies to public spaces, not private settings where the rules may differ.
Maintain a minimum of 6 feet of distance from the situation so you can safely observe. Keep your phone close to your body around chest level. To protect your digital safety, disable face or fingerprint ID methods for unlocking your phone, and use a passcode with six or more digits instead.
“If you are recording, don’t hold your phone out from your body,” Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a movement attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, told HuffPost. “This makes it easier for law enforcement to grab.”
If a cop asks you to back up, comply with the request.
“You can stay safe and still film critical footage from a distance, like from a window, balcony, rooftop or fire escape,” activist Palika Makam of the human rights organization WITNESS wrote in a piece for Teen Vogue.
Without a warrant, police cannot confiscate your device, nor can they demand to see the videos or photos you’ve taken or delete them — though that sometimes happens anyway.
If a law enforcement official tells you to stop filming, you can state your constitutionally protected right to document police activity occurring in plain view.
“If it were me, and an officer came up and said, ‘You need to turn that camera off, sir,’ I would strive to calmly and politely yet firmly remind the officer of my rights while continuing to record the interaction, and not turn the camera off,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, previously told The Atlantic.
And even though taking your device or demanding you stop filming could be a violation of your rights, “those rights can only be upheld later on after you get to court,” Ellinger-Locke explained. “In the moment on the street, if you fail to comply with an officer’s order ― even an unlawful one ― you may be subjecting yourself to arrest.”
Pay close attention to the details.
You may want to narrate your recording of the incident as it’s unfolding, Ellinger-Locke said.
“Note the officer’s names, badge numbers, and appearance, as well as the time and location of the recording,” she said. “If the officers are making an arrest, try and get the arrestee’s name and date of birth so you can follow up with them later in court. Your recording may be helpful to their attorney.”
Capture background scenery, like street signs or other landmarks, that make it clear where the incident is occurring. To the extent possible, keep other people in the background out of frame, focusing on the victim and the officers.
“Think like a sports commentator. Focus on time, date, location, i.e., ‘It’s 3 p.m. and four police officers just approached two women on Fulton Street in Brooklyn,’” Makam wrote. “‘The officers are holding tasers and are not wearing their masks properly.’”
If you’re unable to or uncomfortable recording the incident, write the pertinent details on a piece of paper or jot them down in your phone.
“After you get back home, type up what occurred while it is still fresh in your mind,” Ellinger-Locke said.
“If the police do not make an arrest, check if the person needs medical attention or other help,” she added.
Pause before posting your footage online.
Your instinct may be to immediately share what you saw on social media or other digital platforms, but consider holding off. Give yourself time to process what you saw and understand the ramifications of sharing it publicly on your own accounts.
The Black teenager who captured the video of Floyd became the target of online harassment, including criticisms that she should have done more to intervene.
“MIND YOU I am a minor! 17 years old,” she wrote on Facebook. “Of course I’m not about to fight off a cop I’m SCARED wtf.”
Ask yourself if you want your name associated with the footage, as that can “make you vulnerable to aggressions from internet trolls or even the police,” Makam said.
For that reason, you may want to share the video (and any other details you collected) with the victim’s attorney, if they have one, or with an advocacy group that can help determine the best course of action or post the video anonymously on your behalf.
Take care of your mental health.
Just because you weren’t physically hurt during the incident doesn’t mean you weren’t affected by what you saw. Acknowledge that witnessing violence is a traumatic event in and of itself, said therapist Abigail Makepeace. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes up.
“Witnessing violence can shake your sense of personal safety to the core. It can affect your sense of agency and alter your world view,” said Makepeace, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma. “You may find yourself feeling fearful, emotionally flooded or shut down. Trauma can resonate with you long after the initial shock of the experience.”
Reach out to close friends, family members, others in your community or mental health professionals for ongoing support as you process the event.