‘I dream about it every night’: What happens to the people who film police violence
Feidin Santana relives the morning of Saturday 4 April 2015 on a near continuous loop. It was around 9.30am and the 23-year-old was running uncharacteristically late for work. As he walked his usual route through the back streets of North Charleston, something caught his eye: a black man running away from a white police officer.
Santana followed the chase for a few yards to a deserted patch of lawn behind a pawn shop and a car dealership. Here the officer caught up with the man, and ended up on top of him. Watching from behind a chainlink fence, Santana instinctively reached for his phone and pressed record.
The morning was still, silent. “You could hear birds flying, the swing of their wings,” Santana says as he stands, three months later, where he was that day. “You could hear everything; the sounds of the officer, the gunshots. Everything.”
Santana had hoped he might be noticed. “I believed my presence would prevent something,” he says softly, his voice almost drowned by the hum of cicadas. “But it didn’t happen that way.”
Instead, Santana’s steady hand captured the moment the unarmed, 50-year-old man, Walter Scott , broke away from the officer, Michael Slager, and attempted to flee. The officer paused for a moment, pointed his gun and fired about eight rounds until Scott lay face down on the ground.
“Everything happened too fast,” Santana says. “I never imagined he’d pull his gun out. There was no way out. He [Scott] was running slow.”
In the grainy footage, Slager can be seen opening fire, then walking over to Scott’s body, yanking his floppy arms and placing them in handcuffs.
“Oh shit,” Santana can be heard whispering, as he follows the officer. Slager jogs back to the site he fired from, picks up an object from the floor – perhaps his Taser – and drops it next to the body as another officer arrives. “Fucking abuse,” Santana mutters. The two officers gaze down on Scott’s corpse, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are being filmed. Santana moves right up to the fence as Slager places his finger on Scott’s neck, checking for a pulse.
The grassy patch where Scott fell is peaceful now. Memorials have been removed, and Santana looks at the ground, hands in his pockets, his lean body framed by the fence he filmed through just a few months earlier. “This is the place where everything changed,” the Dominican migrant says.
Once Santana’s footage went public, Slager was arrested and charged with murder. Santana’s split-second decision that day marked a turning point in a new civil rights movement in the US, one born on the streets of Ferguson , Missouri, in August 2014. Then, it was 18-year-old Michael Brown who was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson. The final few minutes of Brown’s life had been captured by a small surveillance camera rolling inside a nearby grocery shop, where Brown had stolen a box of cigars before walking out with a friend. After the shooting, one of his neighbours used his phone to film Brown’s bloodied body lying in the road. “They said he had his hands up and everything,” the young man was recorded saying, as a crowd gathered in the midday sun.
But the violent 90-second encounter between these two recordings, which would unleash months of civil unrest on America’s streets and return a dispute over race and criminal justice to the forefront of its politics, somehow eluded phone cameras. “I just wish we could have had solid proof,” says Leslie McSpadden, Brown’s uncle.
As protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate over Brown’s death, even a year on , so a legion of amateur cameramen and women have begun watching officers closely, posting recordings that undermine the monopoly once held by police on the official version of events. Footage of fatal encounters with police has already helped secure murder charges, not just against Slager but also against an officer in Baltimore, Maryland, who drove the police van in which Freddie Gray , a black 25-year-old, suffered fatal injuries in April – apparently contradicting official narratives filed by officers. A white police officer lost his job within days of being filmed aggressively handling teenagers outside a pool party in Texas in June. The case was cited as proof of what campaigners argue is a policing system sharply biased against African Americans, sometimes with deadly consequences.
But the surge in vigilante recording is being met with aggressive resistance from police. Judges uphold the right of American people to film law enforcement officers under the first amendment of the US constitution, and lawmakers in several states have proposed new laws specifically protecting such recording. But officers increasingly complain that filming interferes with their duties, and insist that short clips don’t tell the full story of controversial encounters. An increasing number are taking direct action to prevent recordings – snatching or smashing phones or demanding the handover of footage, sometimes even after it has been livestreamed directly online.
For many who capture horrific acts of violence, returning to a normal life becomes impossible. They complain of harassment by police, of threats against their life and of recurring trauma as a result of the death and brutality they have witnessed.
In the barber shop where he works, in a dusty strip mall by a motorway, Santana is friendly, relaxed. But walking to the site where Scott was killed, his mood shifts; he talks slowly, pausing and casting his eyes into the distance. “I try not to come back here,” he says. “But you cannot ignore your fears. Sometimes I cross by. I look at the video and I see myself, how everything happened.”
Santana migrated to America with his family 10 years ago, at 13. Like many who come to the US from Latin America, he arrived without a word of English, in pursuit of a better life. He has, he says, lived a “nomadic existence”, moving from city to city in his late teens; spending a short time back in the Dominican Republic, playing shortstop in the baseball Prospect League , hoping to be scouted by a major league club in the US. But he injured his shoulder and moved alone to North Charleston in 2013 to start a career as a barber, sending money back home to his wife and one-year-old son.
He describes himself as someone who “gets along with everybody”. But adds, “I’m a person who doesn’t like injustice.” It was this that informed his decision to follow Scott and Slager that day, and guided his actions after he turned the camera off.
As officers began to swarm around Scott’s body, Santana shouted and told one he had witnessed the entire event. “I told him what happened was an abuse, and that I had it on record,” he recalls. The officer told him to stay where he was but then, inexplicably, he was allowed to leave the crime scene. He feared officers might seize his phone and the footage would be lost for ever, so he took flight.
“I just left, right in front of their eyes. They didn’t try to stop me. I don’t know why.” He wasn’t certain if the film had saved and as he ran to the barber’s shop he looked back at his handset. The footage was there. “I couldn’t believe it recorded… I got nervous, I tried to send it to another phone.”
But he quickly decided against sharing it with anyone, worried about how it might be handled. The gravity of what he had just witnessed began to sink in. At this point, Santana’s close friend Tawayne Weems walked into the barber’s shop.
You’re scared of who you’re dealing with. It goes through your mind… what could happen? I’m the only one with evidence
Weems, 43, is assistant principal at the local high school. An African American who speaks fluent Spanish, he met Santana when he first moved to North Charleston. Weems quickly became a father figure to him, helping him establish himself in a city where he had no family.
But on that day back in April, the two had not seen each other in months. Weems had popped by to get a haircut, and describes the moment he saw the footage: “We went outside, he showed it to me in the car. I knew this was on the precipice of something big, that could really change things,” he says. “But initially I didn’t want to get involved.”
The two watched the news that afternoon, which led with a story on Scott’s death. To their shock, the reports reproduced the official lie: that Scott had been shot after he grabbed Slager’s Taser and the officer feared for his life. “Then it was like, well, we got to say something,” Weems says. They vowed to get the video to Scott’s family.
Santana later shared a copy with his wife in the Dominican Republic, under strict instructions that if anything were to happen to him, she should send it only to Weems. He feared for his life: “You’re scared of who you’re dealing with. You know it’s law enforcement, who are meant to be doing their job, but then they’re saying the opposite of what you saw. It goes through your mind… what could happen next? I’m the only one with the evidence.”
That evening Santana contacted a local protester who had led a rally in support of the Scott family, sending him a screenshot of his footage over Facebook. The next afternoon, at a vigil, the activist introduced him to Scott’s brother, Anthony. As Santana played the video from his phone, Anthony broke down in tears. But still Santana held on to it: he wanted his own attorney in place before he handed it over on Monday.
By Tuesday evening, the video was playing on every US news channel and, later, around the world. Santana stood in the barber shop and watched a press conference held by North Charleston’s mayor, who announced that Slager had been charged with murder. Then Santana heard the question he’d been dreading: a journalist asked who had filmed the video.
“That’s when I really got scared. When something you have done is on national TV, worldwide TV,” he says, “you have to live through that to understand it.”
It is a fear that Ramsey Orta, a New York City resident and also 23, understands only too well. Orta filmed the death of Eric Garner , capturing the moment the 43-year-old was placed in a banned chokehold by an NYPD officer and uttered his last words: “I can’t breathe.”
Lawyers Ken Perry and William Aronin sit in the poky downtown Manhattan apartment that serves as their office. The pair, separated in age by over three decades, make up Orta’s legal team.
“We don’t discuss where Ramsey is now, for obvious reasons, other than to say he is in the city and with family,” says Aronin, 31.
Orta no longer gives interviews and will not disclose his location. “I’m still happy I took the video,” he said in a statement via his lawyers. “I just wish I was able to keep my name out of it.”
Orta had a criminal past before the Garner incident, including convictions for drugs sales and possession of stolen property. But since the video emerged a year ago, he has endured three stints in New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail . His lawyers argue that he has been the subject of a targeted campaign at the hands of the NYPD. They list what they claim are deficiencies in the criminal cases pending against their client, which consist of two recent drug dealing charges and a weapons possession charge that occurred just two weeks after the Garner video emerged.
“He’s basically a whistleblower,” Aronin says. “Two weeks after he blows the whistle on horrific police abuse, the police just happen to find him waving a gun in plain sight. It’s ridiculous.”
Perry argues that the DNA evidence on the gun charge is inconclusive, and says of video evidence turned over in Orta’s first drugs case, “You can’t see shit, you can’t hear shit.”
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment about the pending cases, but Orta is due to stand trial later in the year.
Orta is not the only witness to have gone to ground. Kevin Moore filmed the moment 25-year-old Freddie Gray was bundled into the back of a police van in Baltimore, minutes before he sustained a horrific spinal injury that later killed him. Moore, 28, was arrested days after Gray’s death, after a protest in the city. He was released without charge, but described the incident as a deliberate act of intimidation. He has not been heard from in weeks, according to local activists.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, leading law enforcement figures have tried to play down the legitimacy of these clips. Bill Bratton , New York’s veteran police commissioner, accuses activists of exploiting a handful of regrettable cases “to try to define American policing”. With physical altercations, he says, “It’s lawful – but it looks awful.”
Earlier this year, Jason Villalba , a Republican representative in the Texas legislature, became the latest US politician to propose new laws banning people from filming police. Until last year, recording officers in Illinois without permission was a felony crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Efforts during the last legislative sessions to pass laws protecting the right to film failed in Connecticut, Mississippi and Montana.
But a steadily growing weight of opinion holds that filming the police is legal. Courts in Illinois and Massachusetts have ruled that filming is protected by the first amendment of the US constitution, and the US supreme court declined in 2012 to consider an appeal against the Massachusetts decision, meaning the nation’s highest court turned down an opportunity to restrict filming across the country. Villalba withdrew his bill amid a crescendo of criticism just days after the emergence of Santana’s footage in South Carolina, and laws protecting filmers were enacted during the last sessions in Arkansas, Colorado and Oregon.
But Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official, cautions that a black hand-held phone could easily be mistaken for a gun by police officers having to make split-second decisions under intense pressure. “This is not a time to be engaged in a frolic,” he says. “The police sometimes shoot and kill people who turn out not to have something.”
Chuck Canterbury , national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, adds that filming often hinders officers trying to do their jobs. “People are interfering by getting much too close,” he says.
Both Hosko and Canterbury claim many clips are misleadingly edited. They decry the treatment of Eric Casebolt , the police officer who resigned amid widespread criticism after he was filmed manhandling a black girl and pointing his gun at two black boys outside a pool party in McKinney, a Dallas suburb. The footage, recorded on a mobile phone by a 15-year-old, dominated the national media after sweeping across the internet.
“You only get what the person who filmed it wants you to see,” Canterbury says of amateur footage. “The McKinney video did not show the facilitating incident, the fights taking place, the residents who were demanding police action.”
“One thing is for sure in America,” Hosko says of the two unarmed boys who approached Casebolt before he drew his weapon. “You’re rolling up to a potential gun fight, because at least one person has a gun. You may have a gun in your face.”
Both men support efforts to restrict filming to a set distance away from officers, or to outlaw interference with police fulfilling their duties.
When Mekkel Richards and Adam Malinowski saw eight police officers pushing a man to the ground and beating him in downtown Detroit one evening last summer, both reached for their phones. The two students had been walking back from a fireworks display. Standing three metres apart, they watched the scene as their digital cameras rolled, blood seeping from the man’s head.
“That’s when I realised that what we’ve all read about and seen on the TV about police brutality is real, and not a rarity,” says Richards, who is 23.
Soon they were spotted. “Get the fuck back,” Richards says one officer told him. “Put your phone away, you can’t be videotaping,” said another. One pushed him to the ground, he says, and when he stood up, another officer punched him in the face.
Realising Malinowski was recording this, too, the officer ran towards him and placed him in a headlock before slamming him to the ground and handcuffing him, he alleges. The officers smashed Malinowski’s iPhone and erased recordings on Richards’s device, the pair say. “I’ve never felt as threatened as I did that day,” Malinowski says.
They were arrested, charged with interfering and had to spend the night in cells. They claim one officer told them they were “faggot tree huggers that take the whole rights thing too seriously”. Malinowski had his case dismissed following probation. The case against Richards was dismissed when police did not turn up to court.
The two men recently filed a lawsuit accusing the officers and their city bosses of assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and violating their constitutional rights. “It’s unfortunate the only way to hold police accountable legally for this is to sue them for money,” says Malinowski, who is now 22.
Their case was the most violent in a series of recent confrontations, according to Carlos Miller , a former journalist who now tracks the issue on his website, Photography Is Not A Crime . Already this year, the site has reported on 87 cases in which people were arrested, manhandled or threatened for filming police. The rate of such incidents has increased in recent years, Miller says. “It’s great we have all these laws, but the battle continues. We’re not going to back down, and nor are they.”
In June, an officer in Austin, Texas , was filmed snatching the phone of a man recording the police, then pepper-spraying him. The previous month in North Carolina, a man was arrested and charged with interfering while filming his friend being arrested. “How do you stop your phone?” an officer can be heard asking on his footage.
In March in New Jersey, Phillip White was filmed being mauled by a police dog, in an incident that led to his death. One officer approached the bystander who had been recording and, after confirming he had captured the entire thing, told him: “I’m going to take your phone.” The footage was later obtained by a local TV news station.
In a bid to counter the backlash from officers, a number of developers have created automatic mobile video upload software. One such app, released by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2012, at the height of the NYPD’s use of “stop and frisk”, sends recorded footage straight to a legal observer at the union, effectively safeguarding recordings before they can be deleted. It has been downloaded by 35,000 city residents and tens of thousands of submissions have been received.
The videos, says Jennifer Carnig, a spokeswoman for the NYCLU, provided an unprecedented insight into discriminatory policing under stop and frisk: verbal and physical abuse, heavy-handed searches and the drawing of weapons on people who appear to be unarmed. The app also revealed new methods officers are using to stop bystanders filming them, for example by shining torches or the high beams of their patrol cars into the camera lens.
The “mobile justice” app has now been rolled out in seven other states, including California, where more than 150,000 people have downloaded it. It has yet to bring about any litigation, Carnig says, “but I think what we have gotten is this public conversation”.
Just as it became the centre of the new protest movement, so Ferguson has become a flashpoint for this intensifying clash between law enforcement officers and those who film them. Several photographers and livestreamers, who broadcast direct to the web, were arrested along with reporters during the weeks of protests that followed Brown’s death last August. Last weekend, a demonstration to mark the anniversary of his death ended in violence, much of it filmed .
In a report published earlier this year on its investigation into the Ferguson police department, the US Department of Justice found that the city’s officers “routinely infringe on the public’s first amendment rights by preventing people from recording their activities” and cite safety concerns to do so “without any factual support”.
One prominent livestreamer, Heather De Mian , was arrested after being knocked from her wheelchair – by a police officer, she alleges – at a demonstration outside the Ferguson police station in February, to mark six months since Brown’s shooting.
“I was on the ground, the cops stole my phone and then I was knocked in the face and was just kind of stunned,” says De Mian, 45. “My glasses were knocked into the street and I couldn’t see.”
I was on the ground, the cops stole my phone and then my glasses were knocked into the street and I couldn’t see
While one officer wheeled her chair inside the station, another loaded her into an SUV. She was taken inside and eventually charged with assaulting a police officer. She insists she has no idea what she is supposed to have done. “If I tried to hit somebody, I would dislocate something,” said De Mian, who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome , a disorder of the body’s connective tissue.
De Mian got into livestreaming when her BlackBerry was knocked from her hand as she photographed riot police at a demonstration following the acquittal in July 2013 of George Zimmerman , from criminal charges over his killing of Trayvon Martin , a black 17-year-old, in Florida. She was eventually sentenced to 20 hours of community service for failure to obey a reasonable police order, after not dispersing when police declared the assembly illegal.
During the months of protests in Ferguson, she captured police pepper-spraying and tear-gassing crowds, and roughly snatching people for arrest in targeted raids. While the cable news cameras stayed back, she broadcast direct from the frontlines, sending images of the chaotic clashes to laptops all over the world.
The Obama administration’s view on those who have filmed in Ferguson is unambiguous. “As the ability to record police activity has become more widespread,” said the Department of Justice report, “the role it can play in capturing questionable police activity, and ensuring that the activity is investigated and subject to broad public debate, has become clear.”
At Scott’s funeral , a week after his death, hundreds lined up in the rain to pay their final respects. They swayed in time as a soloist sang rousing gospel, then bowed their heads in prayer. Pastor George D Hamilton delivered a sermon, describing Santana’s actions as the will of God: that he was able to “video every detail so no man could question the guilt of that murderer”. As Scott’s body lay surrounded by flowers, Hamilton’s advice to the congregation was clear: “Keep your phone handy, keep your charge up. You never know when you need to be around.”
Santana was not present at the funeral, but he was there when South Carolina’s governor signed the first statewide law requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras . It was pushed through in the wake of the Scott incident and would not have happened without Santana’s footage.
As Santana prods at his dinner, he hints at the stress that has continued since his brief exposure in the media and ahead of a likely appearance as a witness in Slager’s murder trial . He moved from his home, close to the site of the shooting, after it happened. Now he moves between locations, “to be safe, to be around people you know care”.
“It is something you can’t ignore, something you can’t erase,” he says of Scott’s death. “I dream about this, the same thing every single night.”
He talks of the paranoia that arose after the mass shooting two months after Scott’s death at a black church in Charleston, a few miles away, where a 21-year-old white supremacist is accused of murdering nine parishioners at a prayer service.
“There are many things in this state that I didn’t know the real face of,” he says. “After those threats, it shows you.”
There is a Death to Feidin Santana Facebook group that proclaims, “He put a good man behind bars!” Has he received any direct threats?
Santana pauses and drops his eyes. “A little bit of everything, that’s all I can say. I used to work from eight in the morning until 11 at night. Now I can’t. I don’t feel comfortable staying in the barber shop. It’s not the same. I used to be there by myself, now I have to be surrounded by people.” Yet he has no regrets and shrugs at the suggestion that his acts were heroic. “I believe we are here to be each other’s keepers, to protect each other. I don’t see anything special in what I did.”
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