Smartphones Have Transformed the Fight Against Police Violence

Before smartphones, police violence went mostly unseen — but far more violent interactions are never captured on film. The problem of racist policing won’t be solved by more visibility.

Bystanders film police using smartphones and camcorders as they confront protesters in Harlem on May 30, 2020 in New York City. David Dee Delgado / Getty

“How Many Weren’t Filmed?!” These words appeared on a cardboard sign held by a camo-clad man at a recent protest in Decatur, Georgia, against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The words were also printed in block letters on a banner carried by demonstrators in Manchester, England, scrawled in pen on a woman’s face mask in New York City, and Sharpied on poster boards in towns and cities elsewhere.

The question captures the complex reality of police brutality in the age of smartphones. It alludes, on the one hand, to how smartphones have been repurposed as a tool to fight the police, and on the other, to the limitations of smartphones as a tool to fight a mammoth, militarized, decentralized institution with a deep-rooted history of violence against poor people, particularly poor people of color.

The question also encourages us to look a bit more closely at our pocket computers, to see our smartphones as more than just a tool. Machines, Gilles Deleuze once argued, “express those social forms capable of producing them and making use of them.”

Smartphones are incredibly expressive machines. The ways we use them reveal the social relationships and structures of power that undergird modern society — including its racial divides.

Before smartphones, police violence went mostly unseen. The deadly attack on Rodney King in 1991 stands out as an exception. It was an exception in part because the acquittal of the four LAPD officers who dealt out the vicious beating sparked a violent public response. But the assault also stands out because it was filmed by a stranger with a camcorder and sent to the local news station, providing relatively rare visual evidence of the reality of American policing.

Today, smartphones are an integral part of strategies to rein in the police. Cop-watch organizations, which have been around for decades in cities across the country, immediately recognized how smartphones could be repurposed to document and potentially reduce the oppression of people of color by law enforcement.

When Alton Sterling was killed by police for selling DVDs outside a Baton Rouge convenience store, the store’s owner, Abdullah Muflahi, filmed the murder. So did the Baton Rouge nonprofit Stop the Killing, whose volunteers had been monitoring police scanner traffic.

The advent of livestreaming in particular has been a game changer, preventing police from creating a false narrative by confiscating phones and erasing video filmed by bystanders. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups have created smartphone apps such as Mobile Justice Michigan to make it easier for cop-watch volunteers and community organizations to film and stream interactions with police.

The digital strategies and sensibilities pioneered by cop-watch groups and civil rights organizations have permeated progressive movements in the past decade. Protesters of every stripe now come armed with smartphones and social media.

Digital Coping Strategies

Walter Scott was murdered in 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina, by officer Michael Slager. Scott, unarmed, was shot five times in the back and legs as he tried to run from Slager and then handcuffed as he lay dying, face down in the dirt.

At Scott’s funeral, the pastor thanked God for Feidin Santana, the man whose smartphone video of the killing brought Scott’s killer to justice. “Keep your phone handy, keep your charge up,” the pastor implored the funeral attendees. “You never know when you need to be around.”

For many people of color, this sense of uncertainty, of never knowing when state-sponsored violence could strike, is inscribed in their relationship with their smartphone.

Diamond Reynolds’s impulse, after seeing her partner, Philando Castile, shot during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016, was to immediately pick up her phone and livestream his life being extinguished on the car seat next to her. Reynolds wanted the world to know that “these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black.”

Tanya Marshall, a black mother, teacher, and active member of her community in Cambridge, Massachusetts, copes with uncertainty by treating her smartphone as a constant lifeline to her children. Marshall has a hard and fast house rule that her children are to keep their phones charged and handy at all times and must call her right away if they have a run-in with a police officer, so that she can intervene and hopefully prevent a violent interaction.

Marshall’s digital strategy for coping with the nagging fear that a police officer will harm one of her children is one that she says she shares with many other black parents. Yet this dynamic is largely absent in media narratives about smartphones. Popular treatments of phones, especially ones that focus on teens and their digital devices, tend to emphasize the dangers posed by smartphones, such as social media addiction, sexting, and cyberbullying.

These are serious concerns to be sure. But the fact that, over the past decade, phones have come to be seen as an essential element in the coping strategies of oppressed minorities, as well as broader political movements fighting for racial justice, suggests the need for a more nuanced understanding of technology that examines the ways our phones reflect and reconfigure long-standing divides over race, class, and gender.

Police Have Their Own Cameras

A closer look at our emerging smartphone norms also reveals the dense, and evolving, mechanisms of oppression that undergird police violence toward black and brown Americans — mechanisms that can diminish the power of digital strategies.

In the most basic sense, those who film cops have a target on their back. Stories pepper the web of people who’ve been intimidated, harassed, beaten, arrested, and jailed for filming interactions between law enforcement and civilians.

Cops also take advantage of people’s perpetual connection to their phones to digitally monitor and harass activists. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, used a social media intelligence platform to monitor and arrest protestors during the unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young Baltimore man whose spinal cord had been severed nearly in half following a “rough ride” in the back of a police van.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies have responded to smartphone tactics by getting their own cameras. Six out of ten local police departments and nearly half of sheriffs’ offices in the United States had deployed body-worn cameras by 2016.

This rapid uptake was initially viewed with enthusiasm by both police departments and civil rights groups. Both believed that body cameras would provide protection and accountability: cops thought cameras would protect and exonerate officers, while civil rights groups such as the ACLU believed cameras would reduce the use of force and increase police accountability.

From the perspective of civil rights groups, the results have been disappointing. Ordinary people don’t have a say in how police officers use their cameras, and cops turn their bodycams on and off at will. There is no body-camera footage, for example, from March 13, when Louisville police used a battering ram to bust into Breonna Taylor’s apartment in the middle of the night, spraying her apartment with bullets, killing her in her bed.

Even when police body cams are turned on, there are relatively few cases in which body-cam footage has led to officers being disciplined or jailed for violence. Moreover, while prosecutors have proven eager to use body-cam footage as evidence in court, civilians find it difficult to access the footage being used as evidence against them — footage that is shot without consent, often in private spaces.

Perversely, the power of smartphones to create a vivid visual snapshot of police aggression has also had the effect of diminishing the salience of violent interactions that are not captured on film.

Sixteen-year-old Elena Mondragon was riding with her boyfriend in 2017 when undercover cops armed with AR-15 rifles fired on their vehicle, killing Mondragon. Few cases better exemplify gross police misconduct, yet as Melissa Nold, the civil rights attorney representing the family, told the Guardian, the case received little traction because it wasn’t captured on film. “When there’s no video, that’s a battle for us. People just tend to believe what is reported by the police.”

These roadblocks and failures reinforce the obvious but important point that smartphones, body cams, and other digital devices are tools, not solutions; there is no technological fix for racist policing.

Nonetheless, the ways that people have woven their digital devices into the ongoing political struggle for racial justice over the past ten years are illuminating.

Their strategies reveal a dynamic terrain of resistance in which smartphones are being used to expand individual agency and to amplify a call for change that, increasingly, can no longer be ignored.