Advances in technology have made it possible for more people than ever before to film and expose human rights abuses. This increase in eyewitness video presents new opportunities and challenges around how footage is analyzed, shared, preserved and used for advocacy and evidentiary purposes.
For example, over the last 10 years, eyewitness video helped expose police violence in the U.S. and catalyze a national conversation around systemic racism. However, in many cases, like that of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile show, video alone often does not lead to convictions against or even indictments of police officers.
This is why we joined hands with El Grito de Sunset Park, a community-based organization in Brooklyn, to study over 300 videos from their collection of eyewitness videos depicting police misconduct and abuse spanning a dozen years. Going beyond headline-grabbing instances of police violence, our project "Profiling the Police" aims to expose the day-to-day pressure, surveillance and harassment that residents in heavily-policed neighborhoods—most often people of color—like Sunset Park face on a regular basis.
Our project also addresses challenges around the lack of transparency from police departments, managing and analyzing large collections of human rights videos to identify patterns of abuses over time, and it supports community-led efforts to document and preserve important local histories around police misconduct.
Powerful visuals evoke emotions, make for deeper engagement and can effectively convey complex ideas. This is why we created this project as a use case study for advocates, journalists, legal experts and technologists interested in exploring new forms of storytelling through the analysis and curation of human rights videos.
When we first embarked on this project El Grito de Sunset Park had far too many videos for us to work with, so we began with a small sample set of footage. Our initial focus was on videos captured during the Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day Parade from 2002-2014 — an event that has a rich history among residents, but has been met with recurring police brutality.
After we narrowed down the collection, we digitized old mini-DV tapes, organized the footage and then began reviewing, analyzing and tagging the videos. Review of these videos and stories from local residents led us to understand that certain officers were repeatedly involved in violent altercations with the community year after year. To better capture these altercations, we expanded the scope of our collection to include incidents in Sunset Park that were not part of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Altogether, we catalogued 1703 videos and files, analyzed over 300 videos, and digitized 29 tapes over the course of five months.
We used some of these videos to create an in-depth profile for one officer who was involved in multiple incidents, yet continues to serve on the force and receive promotions and pay raises. We substantiated the encounters and complaints included in the profile with legal documents, public data, and media reports. The profile represents a way to visually connect the dots around repeated incidents of misconduct over time and serves as a model for groups working to expose officers repeatedly accused of abusive behavior.
Throughout this project we documented the tools and methodologies we used in a Toolkit so others can learn and build off our work. Guidance included in the toolkit ranges from digitizing mini-DVs, creating metadata schema for databases, curating video collections to tell human rights stories, and how to safely, ethically and strategically publish videos of police misconduct.
We developed a website in WordPress to share our research and findings, the in-depth officer profile and the Video Database Toolkit. Original video content and a visual storytelling featured on the site help engage viewers and simplify the complex nature of this project. The website also includes links for people to take action by joining campaigns calling for greater transparency and resources on how to film encounters with the police.
From the beginning we collaborated with key stakeholders including other copwatch groups, archivists, data scientists, journalists, attorneys and advocacy organizations to inform our project and the development of Toolkit.
This project has been successful on many levels. When we first began sharing our ideas with key stakeholders, we realized that there was no guidance on how to collect, analyze and curate videos of police abuse, yet there was a lot of interest and a clear need for this type of resource. One objective we successfully met was filling this resource gap by creating "Profiling the Police" as a way to present an in-depth case study as well as a practical Toolkit to support others working on issues of policing, data and video documentation.
Additionally, to share and engage key stakeholders, we partnered with the Invisible Institute to co-organize a 2-day convening of 35 grassroots organizers, journalists, data scientists and lawyers. The gathering provided a valuable space to discuss opportunities and challenges around using data for police accountability. The event resulted in a shared sense of urgency and eagerness to collaborate on projects and continue to learn from each others experiences.
This project has also provided opportunities to collaborate with other groups holding onto large collections of police violence videos. For example, we are now working with Berkeley Copwatch to build off our learnings and develop a more robust database for the group. Grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico, St. Louis and New Orleans have also reached out to us with interest in bringing similar projects to their area.
Overall, this project met all of our objectives by resulting in valuable learnings, useful tools and strengthened relationships with others involved in this work.