Advances in technology have enabled citizens with portable equipment to film and photograph significant events and incidents, often including police responses. Sometimes these people record and post incidents of police violence, and are commonly referred to as citizen journalists.
Filming or photographing incidents allows issues of social injustice to be exposed to a larger audience. When it involves police violence, it’s typically coupled with calls for greater police accountability and justice for victims.
While recording of the police has increased, it’s evident that the limited empirical research that exists has yet to examine its long-term impact on policing, police-community relations, and accountability, particularly in relation to the policing of young people and other vulnerable social groups.
But citizen journalism does shine a clear light on systemic discrimination and racism, the most high-profile recent example being the death of George Floyd in the United States. On 25 May, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a convenience store employee called 911, alleging Floyd had passed a counterfeit bank note. Shortly after the police arrived, Floyd was pinned beneath the knee of one of the police officers for almost eight minutes, pleading with them that he couldn’t breathe.
This incident was captured by several citizen journalists. One was Darnella Frazier, a teenager from Minneapolis who recorded the incident and posted her video online. This allowed the entire world to see with their own eyes what had occurred. Darnella Frazier’s lawyer commented:
“If it wasn’t for her bravery, presence of mind, and steady hand, and her willingness to post the video on Facebook and share her trauma with the world, all four of those police officers would still be on the streets, possibly terrorising other members of the community.”
Aboriginal families in Australia who have been bereaved by the deaths in custody of family members have said that George Floyd’s death should act as a poignant reminder of the systemic issues in Australia.
Shining a light on Australia, it’s evident that the relationship and trust levels between police officers and young people are often strained, linked to the legacies of “over-policing” in some communities.
There’s a wealth of critical criminological research in Australia that demonstrates interactions with the police have not been positive for many social groups. The over-regulation of particular groups of young people in public spaces by the police, such as young people from Indigenous communities, from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and young people experiencing homelessness continues.
As part of a larger project analysing citizen journalism, accountability, and young people’s experience of police, we can identify several examples of the violent interactions of police with both adults and young people. These have been made publicly accessible, usually by citizen journalists, via digital media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, and reported on by online media outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Mail and Sydney Morning Herald.
The most notable recent example involves the arrest of a teenager in the inner-Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. On 1 June, a Sydney police officer threw a 16-year-old Indigenous boy to the ground by kicking his feet from beneath him, causing him to land face-first on the ground; all evidence of this was captured via mobile phone footage and posted on social media.In the video of the incident, the young person can be heard saying “I’ll crack ya across the jaw, bro” before the officer walked over to him to “restrain” him. After the video was released publicly, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller made a public statement that the police officer “had a bad day”, which served to almost defend and rationalise this type of behaviour within the police force.
Reflecting on this incident, Redfern Legal Centre solicitor Samantha Lee said:
‘Aboriginal young people in particular are disproportionately policed, not only in New South Wales, but across Australia.”
When evaluating the presence of police misconduct in Australia, Lee asserted that young Indigenous people “are very vulnerable … and it’s time that this particular type of police practice is put to an end”.
Recordings of violent interactions such as these can ultimately have an impact on police legitimacy. Despite this, New South Wales Police Central Metropolitan Region Commander Mick Willing said he was wary of the current environment and global anti-police protests. He also said he was “concerned about others who may use this footage to inflame it and turn it into something that it’s not”.
While citizen journalists and some media outlets do act as “watchdogs” by exposing injustices, the lack of an independent complaints systems and apparatus to enable systems and individuals to be held to account is an under-addressed issue in Australia.
Traditionally in Australia, police complaints have been dealt with internally either by senior police officers or by specific departments within the police, rather than an independent office. A further issue raised by academic research is that access to justice following a police assault or misconduct continues to represent an “unmet legal need”.
While the judgment in Horvath v Australia clearly asserted that Australia is under an obligation to ensure that perpetrators of human rights violations, and specifically actions by police authorities, must be investigated and held to account through independent, effective and impartial investigations, little appears to have changed.
Alarmingly, citizen journalists continue to expose further cases – with the incident in New South Wales occurring about six days after the recording of George Floyd’s death made global headlines.
Citizen journalists, investigative journalists and activists are crucial in ensuring that these realities of police-perpetrated violence are exposed. Yet, the advances in communications technologies to mobilise civic action are but one part of a much larger push for much-needed change to systems and practices that perpetuate discrimination and deny transparency, accountability and justice to those most affected.
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