It was 20 years ago today that the world was shocked by the Rodney King video, which showed a group of Los Angeles police officers viciously beating a black motorist.
The grainy video was recorded by a citizen from his balcony after he was roused awake by sirens and a police helicopter.
George Holliday used a brand-new Sony Handcam, which was a state-of-the-art camera technology at the time, an era when videography was left to the professionals or the die-hard amateurs.
Holliday first approached police with his video, but was turned away. He then sold the video for $500 to a local TV news station and the rest is history.
The cops were indicted. They were found not guilty. And the verdict sparked several days of rioting that left 53 people dead in Los Angeles (a subsequent federal trial found two officers guilty).
While that day 20 years ago will always be overshadowed the riots, it marked the beginning of the citizen journalism era or as Poynter describes it, the “democratization of media.”
Just over a year later, another citizen described by the New York Times as a man who “likes to play with video cameras” caught much of the rioting on his camera, including the savage beating of a white truck driver named Reginald Denny at the hands of angry blacks.
Today, almost every citizen is armed with some type of video camera, whether it is on a cell phone or on a point-and-shoot camera. And everyday, people are learning more about their rights to videotaping in public.
And almost every week, we are confronted with a new video documenting police abuse.
It’s as if they have yet to learn that we now have the power to police the police.
Police have done their best to prevent citizens from recording them, including arresting them on bogus charges and now even claiming their lives are being threatened by cameras, as in the case of Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland.
“Officers are telling me that they’re being provoked,” the chief said. “Even when they try to write a simple traffic ticket, people are jumping out with cell phone cameras scanning their badge numbers and their nametags. And I’ve asked them to remain calm and treat people with respect and dignity.”
McClelland said he is concerned that an intensifying anti-police sentiment in the community could increase negative interactions between Houston Police Department officers and residents.
“This rhetoric can give someone a free pass to try to assault a police officer or kill a police officer, and I’m not going to allow that,” he said.
“My officers should be able to go out here and work in the neighborhoods and keep this city safe without fear and without hesitation.”
But if there is anything we have learned over the last 20 years, it is that in many cases, cameras are the only things keeping us safe from police.