The Ethical Dilemma Over Showing the Video of Walter Scott’s Killing by a Cop

Until the cellphone video was released by his family to the media, the story of Walter Scott’s death at the hands of a South Carolina police officer named Michael Thomas Slager appeared to be just another example of American justice quietly miscarried. Police statements assured local newspapers that the killing occurred after a struggle, and the lede of a Post-Courier story read: “A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his Taser. That’s why Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, fatally shot the man, the officer’s attorney said Monday.”

Think Progress gathered a list of what the police department spokespeople said about this incident before the video was released, and the disparity between these statements and the recorded truth is staggering. “The dead man fought with an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed,” said one statement. Yet absolutely none of this adheres to the narrative of the video of Scott’s death, recorded by an anonymous bystander, which, as The New York Times describes it, takes place as follows: “When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots…. The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.” Thanks to the video, Slager was arrested and charged with murder, and the statements of many other police departments regarding many other such incidents have been appropriately thrown into doubt.

Yet over Twitter, there was a wave of genuine anguish over having to see the images from the video show up again and again. Mikki Kendall compared it the passing around of lynching photographs, while many pointed out that other videos of violence (like ISIS’s atrocities) have been scrubbed from the online network. Others offered a different analogy; Latoya Petersen and Anna Holmes called watching the video “bearing witness” and compared it to Emmett Till’s mother requesting an open casket. The film must be seen as a testament to the truth of what happened.

Jay Smooth offers another metaphor, referring to the videotaping of police misconduct as the equivalent of the “black box” on airplanes that records what happens during a crash.

The two positions aren’t as mutually exclusive as we might assume. Any media record of violence can be seen as either exploitation or bearing witness depending on many factors: the experience of those viewing the images, the consent of the families or the people affected, the reaction to the record, and the question who was recording that violence for what purpose. Context matters too: The video at the New York Times, with what can only be described as a trigger warning preceding it, is not the equivalent to the raw footage popping up unannounced on people’s Facebook feeds.

The pain and trauma of those who are forced to see the image over and over again on their feeds cannot be discounted. Yet at the same time, the pragmatic value of the video’s existence, and initial circulation, has already been proven in a mere few hours; suddenly, thanks to the video evidence, there is a murder charge filed. The original lawyer for the officer has resigned. Suddenly, critics and are silent or are resorting to excuses for the policeman’s behavior that are so far-fetched as to be implausible. The usual attempts to victim-blame, to cast aspersions and murmur phrases about criminal records (even in the Times story itself) have of course surfaced. Yet they pale in comparison to the appalling footage that can’t be explained away.

From an observer’s standpoint, an underlying tragedy here is as follows: why, in this as in so many instances of injustice, do we need this kind of raw proof to move a case further forward? Why have the words of witnesses, the on-the-record pain of entire communities, not been enough? These killings keep happening over and over and over again, and many still cling to whatever combination of blindnesses — adherence to the “just-world fallacy,” undiagnosed white supremacy, naive belief in “the system — has made it so difficult for them to simply believe that there is an epidemic of state violence against people of color.

This incident reinforces the terrible truth that we still live in a world where a perfect victim, along with a recorded cold-blooded killing that sends ripples of trauma throughout both old and new media, may be necessary to make some bystanders and authorities open their eyes.

Violence that is supported by systems of oppression, from war to rape to police killings of minorities, can almost never be understood in objective terms — both because the experience of being a victim is so subjective and because the power dynamics at play magnify the word of the “authorities” while downplaying the experience of the marginalized.

Technology can be a powerful tool to counteract this imbalance — but it also has the negative effect of forcing communities who live with injustice to relive and re-experience their fears and traumas. The video is important; the video shouldn’t be important; the video shouldn’t even exist because Walter Scott’s killing should never have happened.