How Citizen Video Casts Doubt on the Official Version of Events

Comparing the story Anaheim police officers told about an unruly crowd to intense camera footage of their clash.

Residents of a Latino neighborhood in Anaheim, California (a city best known as the home of Disneyland) angrily protested this weekend after police shot and killed an unarmed 25-year-old man. The police chief says his officers approached the vehicle Manuel Angel Diaz was in because they perceived "suspicious activity." Diaz quickly fled the vehicle, and was shot as he ran from the officers, who fired for reasons that "remained under investigation Sunday," The OC Register reported, adding later in the story that "Saturday, as demonstrators gathered at the scene of the shooting, Anaheim officers fired bean bags and pepper spray into a crowd of protestors."

With investigations just being launched, it is too early to assert conclusions about what happened. Whether or not the officers were at fault, it's awful that this unarmed young man is now dead. And everyone involved is owed a thorough, accurate review of the events that transpired.

As that process moves forward, I remain fascinated by the early coverage of the weekend protest that followed the shooting. First look at the report assembled by KCAL 9, a local television station:

That last detail about police officers offering to buy cell phone video footage of the event is itself interesting. Nick Gillespie calls the amateur video incorporated into the KCAL 9 report "a trenchant reminder of the distributed nature of surveillance in today's world." And to underscore why the shift toward citizens empowered by video footage is tremendously important, compare the above reportage to the account of events that appeared on the LA Times Web site.

The headline of the newspaper's account: "Angry Anaheim crowd threw bottles at police, set fires on streets." At the top of the story is an embedded report from KCAL5, which doesn't include any citizen video footage:

I've highlighted several different parts of the LA Times story itself:

Anaheim police were investigating a violent melee Saturday night between police officers and an angry crowd. Authorities said the crowd threw bottles and set fires at an intersection, and police used non-lethal force to disperse them. Sgt. Bob Dunn of the Anaheim Police Department said the incident started when two patrol officers tried to approach three men in an alley about 4 p.m. in the 600 block of North Anna Drive and the men fled. It was unclear why the officers first approached the men, but Dunn said they gave chase and one of the officers followed one of the men to the front of an apartment complex in the 700 block of North Anna Drive where the officer-involved shooting occurred. The man who was shot has not been identified and was pronounced dead at 7 p.m., authorities said. After the shooting, and while police were investigating the incident, Dunn said a group of people encircled the officers and began throwing things, including bottles and possibly rocks, at them.

Police used non-lethal rounds and pepper balls on the crowd, Dunn said, and at least one person was detained. One harrowing moment was when a police dog somehow got free from an officer's car and went at several people. Dunn said it was unclear if anyone had been bitten or injured. "The officer was quickly able to get the dog back into the vehicle," Dunn said. Police were called back to the area later in the evening because a group had blocked the intersection of North Anna Drive and La Palma Avenue with trashcans. "We've been called back to the intersection because they've blocked the roadway and lit several fires there," he said. Residents said they are demanding answers from the Anaheim police chief about the shooting. "We were all waiting for him to come and talk to the community and give us an explanation. Why kill this man?" resident Yesenia Rojas told the Orange County Register, which also reported that some in the crowd said they were hurt by an escaped police dog.

For the time being, I'll set aside my particular suspicions in service of a different point. It's beyond dispute that watching video footage in the KCAL9 report and reading the official-police-source reliant LA Times story afford two dramatically different impressions of what actually happened.

Neither is conclusive. Another 30 seconds of video from a different angle might completely change our impressions of the protest and the police response. The facts reported by police and the images shown by the cell phone videos aren't even necessarily mutually exclusive, though the stories they tell are so different that one story seems to cast tentative doubt on the other.

What this all illustrates is the automatic way that the official police narrative prevails absent any video footage (the LA Times privileges official police voices above the witnesses who share a different story) and the way that participants and witnesses with different perspectives are radically empowered by video and the credibility it lends. This isn't a new phenomenon. Absent the video, events as different as the Rodney King beating and the UC Davis pepper-spraying probably would've ended without any police officers being held accountable. What's changing is how many more police interactions are now recorded, and how potentially silly it makes news outlets look when they reflexively tout the police line before all the available evidence is aired. As Ted Balaker put it, "Thank goodness for smart phones." More than ever before, the truth will out.