In the latest (publicized) case of police brutality in New York City, an officer of the 72nd Precinct was filmed kicking a man who’d been wrestled to the ground by half a dozen other officers and forcibly handcuffed. The man in question was Jonathan Daza, a street vendor at the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Street Festival on Sunday; the kick in question was delivered by Vincent Ciardiello, an officer who has since been suspended. In light of revelatory recordings of police officers around the country, as well as the NFL’s two (most recent) abuse scandals, it’s clear that private video recording has changed the face of justice, and has brought national attention to incidents that might otherwise have been swept under the all-consuming rug.
Certainly, NFL commissioner and chauvinist milquetoast Roger Goodell would have preferred not to address Ray Rice’s brutal assault of his fiancée in a casino elevator, but the video—or, rather, the fact that the video became public knowledge—made it impossible to ignore. Private video, whether from a casino or from a bystander, forces powers that be to confront uncomfortable realities—ones that maybe have always existed, but that were easily silenced, pushed aside, and institutionally spun.
In the four-and-a-half-minute video of brutality in Sunset Park, the audible panic in bystanders’ voices is a reminder how quickly such situations can spin out and turn violent, which, thankfully, it did not—at least not fatally. And in this respect, as startling as the video is, it is alarmingly ordinary; if not for the numerous bystanders and the video, the incident may not have caught the city’s attention. How many similar incidents go unreported, unfilmed, and undecried every day? A citizen’s death should not be the only reason police brutality makes the news.
While police officers wrestle Daza to the ground, several bystanders can be seen in the background of the video, filming and photographing the altercation, circling the rapidly multiplying officers to get a clear view. Many with cameras are shoved out to a perimeter wide enough that it’s difficult to see what’s happening in the cluster of officers around Daza, and it is almost by coincidence that Ciardiello’s swift kick to his body is caught on tape, as he walks away with dramatic casualness, to the shouts and points of several people who saw it occur.
The uncomfortable question we must now face, at the not-a-day-too-soon advent of NYPD body cameras, is what standard operating procedure truly is for our supposed servers and protectors. A kick to the ribs may be “cops being cops,” or an isolated incident, or just one supposed “bad apple,” but as more such incidents pile up we have to wonder whether this news a confirmation bias or a better-documented reality. Bystander video is a crucial and hopefully temporary stand-in for policy reform, as well as an accountability check on the individuals armed by the state with handguns and nightsticks.
Part of the problem lies in the public perception of the institutions that stand behind violent individuals like Ray Rice and the countless police officers who have brutalized citizens in one way or another. Professional athletes are lionized as a result of this country’s fanatical interest in sports, and personal shortcomings, criminal or no, are overlooked in the face of their on-field heroism, or whatever. The police are considerably less popular, especially after the killing of Mike Brown and the protests in Ferguson, MO, but are still often treated as Law incarnate. Individual officers and the police force in general are granted the benefit of a doubt to an extent that few innocent-until-proven-guilty “suspects” seem to be. Just ask anyone who has been Stop-and-Frisk’d.
The cynic in me wonders what new obfuscation may befall the body camera and its recordings once the program moves past its trial run. Even the teensy voice of optimism in my mind wonders how many more of these videos we will have to watch before the behavior changes. The institutional line on incidents like the one in Sunset Park crumble under the weight of the truth captured by civilian video. Until body cameras are worn by every police officer in the country, and maybe even afterward, we’ll have to rely on one another to keep institutions honest.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.