In the seconds it took two Sacramento Regional Transit officers to pin two teenagers to the ground, spectators gathered. A local activist pulled out his phone and took pictures.
The images, which have circulated online since the April 26 incident, show two black teenage boys pinned to the pavement. One is held down by a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, the other by a Sacramento police officer.
Local activists have called it brutality. Police say the images lack context, and nothing in them appears amiss. What both sides can agree on: These images are the product of a community, and a nation, on high alert.
“It’s just the reality of where we are in the world and where we live today,” said Sacramento police Lt. Norm Leong. “My officers have told me that they’ll do a regular stop and turn around and have multiple people filming them. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just the world we live in now.”
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Over the past nine months, law enforcement officers have been met with increased scrutiny and surveillance by a public whose access to cameras is greater than ever before. Most people have one on them at all times in the form of a cellphone, and more and more are using such devices to take pictures and video of police interactions with themselves or others.
Over the past year, cellphone videos of police use of force against black men have incited rallies and marches from New York to Sacramento.
Enter the American Civil Liberties Union, which aims to make such surveillance easier. On May 1, it released a free smartphone app that allows California users to automatically and instantly send cellphone video of law enforcement encounters. If a user begins taking a video with the app, it will be sent immediately to the organization.
The ACLU will then preserve, and have access to, the footage – even if an officer deletes the video or destroys the phone.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the immediate upload will help protect citizens who film police encounters. He cited a South Carolina case in which an officer shot a man named Walter Scott in the back multiple times as Scott ran away. A witness captured the shooting on video, which he ultimately turned over to authorities. The police officer in the case has been charged with murder.
The witness “said he was very afraid; he said he vacillated before turning over that video,” Eliasberg said. “He was really afraid of being retaliated against. He was scared of what would happen if he turned in this video, knowing that he was the one person standing between that officer and his being exonerated by saying, ‘I feared for my life.’ If our app had existed then and in South Carolina, he could have sent that video to us without having to be the person who made that video public. It would have gone public.”
Nothing like the South Carolina shooting has happened in Sacramento recently, but the incidents around the country have this community on edge as well, said Francine Tournour, director of the city of Sacramento’s Office of Public Safety and Accountability. Her job is to independently review allegations of misconduct. She is employed by the city rather than the Police Department, but used to work as a police officer in Contra Costa County.
Tournour said complaints of abuse in Sacramento have “definitely gone up” since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last August.
After the teens on the Sacramento light rail were detained, Independence Taylor, a local activist, posted the photos on Facebook. They were shared thousands of times.
It was on Facebook that Tournour saw the images. Usually, for her to take up a case, she said, someone has to complain. But this time, she decided of her own accord to look into the photos she saw online.
So far, this is what she’s found: Police got a call from a witness who reported a “large black man in a red shirt chasing a woman with a pipe.” What the witness actually saw were two black teenage boys play-fighting with sticks.
Police intercepted the boys’ train at 29th Street.
The officers approached the larger of the two boys – whom Tournour described as about 6 feet tall – and asked him to walk with them toward a parked police cruiser. That’s when, police said, the boy began to stall. When officers grabbed his arm to keep him moving, Leong said, he “began resisting and pushed the deputy.” So, they took him down.
The smaller boy, who was standing several feet away with the Sacramento police officer, began to move toward his friend when he saw what happened, Leong said. Seconds later, the police officer pulled him to the ground as well.
The smaller of the two boys was let go without a citation. The older one, who allegedly pushed a deputy, was cited for resisting arrest and then released on the spot, Leong said.
Leong says an internal review is underway. Tournour, who has been keeping tabs on the case, said she will step in to review the internal investigation once it is complete.
She wishes there was video.
“Still pictures can only tell you part of the story,” Tournour said. “Video would give us a much better understanding of what happened before and after those photos were taken.”
Activists Taylor and Delphine Brody, who leads the Sacramento Community Dinner Project – which feeds the homeless outside City Hall – say they think the incident is a clear violation of the boys’ rights.
“This is the type of occurrence that happens too often and too seldom gets recorded,” said Brody, who has presented the photos at City Council meetings weekly since the incident occurred. “It is imperative of a populace that is consenting to, and supporting, the role of law enforcement in their community to hold them accountable and make sure they’re doing their jobs correctly. … We don’t want to see a repeat of what happened in so many other cities – in Ferguson, in Baltimore. We want to see Sacramento proactively prevent situations like that from happening.”
Tournour said people often mistake legitimate police work, which may require use of force, as abuse. “I don’t think accountability is a bad thing,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with people wanting to record officers’ activities, but the hardest thing is having an understanding of the law to help you put into context what you’re seeing.”
This is where it helps to have an expert look at a case, Tournour said. The public seems to agree.
In the first two days the ACLU’s app was available, the organization saw more than 50,000 downloads. The pace, Eliasberg said, has not slowed since.
“There are very high numbers of encounters between law enforcement and the public that happen just as they’re supposed to happen, but we are becoming aware through these videos that that’s not always the case,” Eliasberg said. “True trust that is good for everybody in the community requires that the public believes and sees that the police are operating lawfully.”
The ACLU’s app, called “Mobile Justice – California,” which is available from Apple’s App Store and Google Play, also arms users with a “know your rights” feature that cites state laws that allow witnesses to film police encounters.
The record feature is simple: A large red “record” button sits in the middle of the screen. When it’s pressed, the video is recorded on the phone and a copy is sent to the ACLU server in real time. When the user stops filming, an option to “report” appears on the screen, which asks the user for information about where the incident took place and the people involved.
Another function of the app, called the “witness” function, notifies users of incidents in their area when the app is activated by someone else. This alerts the public to an ongoing encounter, so that other people might respond to the scene and serve as witnesses to the interaction.
“(Police) have the authority to use deadly force,” Eliasberg said. “That’s an awesome authority that we don’t really grant anyone else. And the public is realizing that we shouldn’t give that authority and walk away, that we should be watching how they use it and making sure it’s not being abused.”