A fixed surveillance camera, recording in Cleveland on November 22, 2014, captured a 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, pointing a toy gun at imaginary targets. The boy was playing alone in a snowy park pavilion at the Cudell Recreation Center. The video, shot from across the way, is silent, the winter colors so drab that it takes a while to realize that the image is actually in color. We watch the boy, seemingly lost in a reverie, walk out of the fixed frame, then circle around and come back into view. Does he imagine himself at the center of some dangerous exploit? Is he stalking bad guys in hiding? He’s like any other kid playing alone with a toy gun, though his toy was a plastic replica of an actual revolver. The camera watches as police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback pull up in their patrol car. After two seconds, Loehmann begins shooting from the car. Tamir Rice was hit twice and died the next day in hospital.
It turned out that the officers had arrived at the park with limited information. The Cleveland dispatcher who summoned the patrol car failed to pass along key details from the 911 caller, including their opinion that the person in the park was “probably a juvenile” and that the gun was “probably fake.” But could the officers not have seen this themselves? In the video, Tamir Rice looks small — he’s certainly not a full-grown man — and the police in their car were a lot closer to him than we are, in the position of the camera across the street.
Loehmann and Garmback have been absolved of any legal culpability; experts appointed by the prosecutors claimed that their behavior was “reasonable.” Yet what we see offends reason. The officers may have arrived without necessary information, but they were armed with their instincts, and Loehmann’s instincts compelled him to start shooting a 12-year-old boy with barely a hesitation.
The Cleveland video is not the only such instance. In November last year the Chicago police released a dashboard camera video recorded in October 2014. A black teenage boy named Laquan McDonald runs along the central divider of a Chicago street. Seen from the rear, he looks blithe, maybe stoned and happy. He slows and veers to his right as the police arrive in multiple cars. He’s holding a small knife, just barely visible in the video, but as he moves away from the police, one of the officers, Jason Van Dyke, entering the fixed image from the left, shoots him repeatedly — 16 times in 13 seconds. The video is silent, so we don’t know what was said, but we can see that the police did not attempt to disarm McDonald as he walked away from them.
These videos may reveal no more than a fragment of a situation, but the viewer can ask questions and draw conclusions from what can be seen. The Cleveland and Chicago videos break into public view as individual disasters but also as symbolic events in which licensed force obliterates not quite innocence (Tamir Rice was waving a replica gun, Laquan McDonald was holding a knife) but overwhelming vulnerability. The viewer, indulging the fantasies of the impotent, asks: “Why don’t the police take cover, negotiate, intimidate? Why don’t they use pepper spray, shoot bean-bag rounds? Why don’t they make arrests?” In other words, why don’t they treat the young men as citizens? It’s as if there were some elementary reality that eluded our understanding. Meaninglessness offends the demand that violence make sense, that it fall into some morally decipherable pattern. But the decipherable pattern here is that some police officers feel free to shoot black men.
On September 4, 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina, state trooper Sean Groubert stopped Levar Jones, a 35-year-old African American, for not wearing his seatbelt. As Groubert’s dashboard camera reveals, Jones pulls into a convenience store and Groubert pulls in after him, halting perhaps 15 feet away. Groubert tells Jones, who is standing outside his car, to get his license, and Jones quickly reaches in and then springs out of the car — at which point Groubert shoots four rounds, wounding Jones in the hip.
Absurdist black comedy takes over: the two men fall out of the frame and Jones can be heard asking, ‘Why did you shoot me?’
Groubert, who addresses the man he has just shot as “sir,” tells him: “Well, you dove head first back into your car”
“I’m sorry,” Jones says.
“Then you jumped back out.”
Nervously, Groubert reassures Jones that an ambulance is on the way. In Groubert’s version of what happened, recorded a bit later in the video, he tells his supervisor that Jones acted aggressively — which is not what we have just seen. (How many times, without the recording of videos, have such cover stories gone unchallenged?)
Despite the video’s restricted point of view, it reveals quite a bit: an officer losing professional control, abandoning common sense and firing on instinct; and then snapping back, attempting to reassert control and authority, and re-entering a normative ethical world in which you try to help someone who is hurt, even if you hurt him yourself.
The video doesn’t tell us why Groubert lost possession of himself, though we can make some guesses. What we see and hear is that Groubert felt threatened by a black man moving in and out of his car at the wrong speed. Groubert was possibly so frightened of black men that he believed he needed to shoot before he got shot himself.
Many such confrontations are fuelled by racial fear and by mutual suspicion, emotions exacerbated by the American plenitude of guns, which has the effect of dissolving common sense and normal hesitations. Would a police officer in London or Tokyo or Ottawa assume that a man moving quickly was reaching for a gun?
In the videos that run on, we can see what happens after the violence, and what we see tells us a great deal about the moral and emotional condition of urban police work. In one widely seen video, recorded on April 4, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina, we seem to have joined in the middle of a movie, but a movie that is savage, senseless, pitiless. The image bucks, the camera pitches down. It is held by a young man, later identified as Feiden Santana, as he blunders along the side of a fence. Once Santana has got a good enough view, he holds the camera steady and we see Walter Scott, a man of about 50, abruptly running away from a policeman, Michael Slager, who then discharges eight rounds from his revolver, five of which hit Scott in the back. Scott falls, and Slager, running up to the immobile body, shouts: “Put your hands behind your back!” Santana keeps his camera on Slager as he returns to where he and Scott had been standing earlier, and we watch as Slager picks up his taser, which is lying on the ground, and returns to Scott, dropping the taser by the body, as if to suggest that the two had struggled over it and that the struggle had produced the shooting.