Why video failed Mr. Patel — and what we can learn from it
I remember how my body tensed up the first time I watched the dashcam footage of Alabama police officer Eric Parker slamming Sureshbhai Patel to the ground, leaving a man who looks like my grandfather paralyzed.
I believed the video spoke for itself, that anybody could look at it and be convinced that something deeply unjust had taken place.
I was wrong.
When an Alabama jury failed to reach a verdict and officer Eric Parker walked away without having been found guilty, it made me rethink my faith in video.
Camera technology has gotten cheaper in the past decade, enticing us with the possibility of a camera in every pocket, a body camera on every police officer, a dashcam on every police car.
But video technology isn’t a magical fix.
It didn’t work when videotape captured Los Angeles police brutally attacking Rodney King. Four officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force, and all four officers were acquitted.
It didn’t work when a cellphone video captured New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo killing Eric Garner, choking the man while ignoring his repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe.” The grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.
And it didn’t work for Sureshbhai Patel.
And in Mr. Patel’s case, not only did his family have video evidence, but also:
- interest from the FBI
- support from the government of India
- a personal apology from the governor of Alabama
- $200,000 raised from well-wishers across the world
All that, and we were still left a mistrial.
The mistrial shows us that the video evidence we can plainly see with our eyes isn’t enough to overturn deep-seated implicit bias, structural racism, and our puzzling willingness to forgive the acts of violence committed by government employees.
But at the same time, it also shows how critical video and photography can be. The chilling video of the attack and the photo of Mr. Patel in the hospital helped shock nations into sitting up and paying attention — if only briefly.
The same video that failed to convince a jury was still shocking enough to go viral, to galvanize so many of us. And maybe that’s a start.
Last month, many Black Lives Matter activists came together to launch Campaign Zero, a 10-point plan to the epidemic of police murders of American citizens.
While they list body cameras and cell phone video as one of the solutions, they acknowledge the limitations before moving on to the promise:
“While they are not a cure-all, body cameras and cell phone video have illuminated cases of police violence and have shown to be important tools for holding officers accountable. Every case where a police officer has been charged with a crime for killing a civilian this year has relied on video evidence showing the officer’s actions.”
Video evidence was necessary to galvanize a shocked response, but not sufficient to win justice for Sureshbhai Patel.
There’s still hope if the case is retried, but to really get justice, we might need to look at the more structural solutions put forward by movements like Campaign Zero, including having police:
- limit the use of force
- intentionally consider ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ racial bias
- receive rigorous and sustained training around appropriate engagement with English language learners
I’ve been tracking police accountability work for some time, but it was always someone else’s problem. Until (I’m ashamed to say) they left a man who looks like my grandfather paralyzed, and it suddenly became my problem too.
I wish there was a silver bullet, a single magical solution to make this all go away. But right now, the solutions that African American police accountability activists are fighting for seem like the best path I can imagine to realistically prevent future tragedies like the attack on Sureshbhai Patel. Nobody deserves what Mr. Patel went through.