Civil and criminal cases brought against police officers have traditionally been difficult for prosecutors and plaintiffs. It is often difficult to convince prosecutors, who work with the police on a daily basis, or jurors, who have had only positive experiences with the police, that an officer would intentionally use deadly force on the basis of race or some other prohibited basis. However, with the advent of video and camera phones that knee jerk reaction may be changing.


Recent cases have raised new skepticism about police officers’ credibility when their words are belied by the images captured on the video phone. Such a video recently graphically and tragically depicted police officer Michael Slager shooting multiple times at Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American man, as he ran away from the officer. Perhaps because, unlike in some other recent high profile cases, the police officer’s actions in the South Carolina video appears to defy any justifiable explanation, the local officials promptly responded by charging the officer with murder and dismissing him from the police force. One wonders whether the outcome would have been the same in the absence of the video.

At a time when video phones have become so prevalent, it is surprising the number of police use of force cases where officers appear to be either unaware or unconcerned that they are being recorded. Perhaps this is because, even with such footage, so few incidents result in any prosecution or even discipline or retraining of the officers involved. Although split second decisions by police officers cannot and should not always be subjected to scrutiny with the luxury of hindsight, the South Carolina footage has convinced even some of the strongest law enforcement advocates that officers’ decision to use force, particularly deadly force, cannot continue to be given automatic deference. It has been observed that when recording devices are used by the police, charges of abuse of force decreased in part because officers behaved in a more disciplined and reasonable fashion.

There should now be little doubt that police departments should embrace equipping their cars and officers with cameras to better protect the public, and themselves, from the corrosive effect of abusive police practices.

McLaughlin is a professor at Pace University School of Law and co-chair with Cohen of the Civil Rights Practice Group at Newman Ferrara LLP.