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1 Year Later, The Video Of George Floyd's Death Has Lasting Impacts


We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, and we can be sure of one thing. The protests and court proceedings after his murder in Minneapolis might never have happened without a bystander's video. Videos of many incidents across this country are transforming law enforcement from police training to prosecutions, and NPR's Cheryl Corley is covering that story. Cheryl, good morning.

CHERYL CORLEY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should say this change has been coming for some time.

CORLEY: Yeah. We've seen it over the past three decades. You may remember it started with the Rodney King case, where we had this really searing video of four police officers beating King. That really shocked the country, precipitated a trial, and the officers were acquitted in what some called a don't-believe-what-you-see verdict. And then there have been other cases, like Philando Castile case. That's the school cafeteria superintendent who was pulled over for one of many traffic stops during his lifetime, and his girlfriend livestreamed that encounter on Facebook. The officer acquitted. And in the Derek Chauvin trial, the prosecuting attorney tells the jury, believe what you saw. And they did, and they convicted Chauvin of murder and manslaughter.

INSKEEP: And of course, in that trial, the jury was able to see the video, but does all this video always make it into the courtroom?

CORLEY: Well, often it doesn't because it really has to meet some pretty high standards according to rules of evidence. And I talked to the University of Washington Law School professor Mary Fan. She studies how audiovisual technology is reshaping policing, and she says there's been a dramatic turn in how much of it is used in court cases.

MARY FAN: Video evidence is volatile, it's emotional and it gives people a sense that they're seeing some sort of objective window into what really happened and now they can really figure it out.

CORLEY: In the trial of Derek Chauvin, video was the star. On the witness stand, experts dissected videos. They gave detailed testimony about seconds in the bystander video that showed the now-convicted former Minneapolis police officer with his knee on George Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. Another video from a police-worn body camera showed the intense struggle that broke out when officers tried to get a handcuffed Floyd in the back of a squad car.


ALEXANDER KEUNG: No. You're not getting in the front (ph).

GEORGE FLOYD: I'm claustrophobic, Mr. Officer.

KEUNG: Get in the car.

FLOYD: OK, man. OK. I'm not a bad guy, man.

KEUNG: Get in the car.

FLOYD: I'm not a bad guy.

CORLEY: With the use of video on the rise in court cases, attorneys are also more sophisticated about tapping into its power. The prosecution and defense offered divergent interpretations of the harrowing scenes of George Floyd's arrest, but getting a jury to see a video in the same light is key. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who organized the prosecution team, says they put a lot of thought into how best to use the videos to emphasize the testimony of eyewitnesses and to help the jury understand the case.

KEITH ELLISON: As opposed to just dumping video on top of them. Can you overdo the video? Can you play it so many times that you basically make people numb to it?

CORLEY: Videos can be very strong evidence, says University of Chicago Law School professor Sharon Fairley. Six years ago, she headed the agency responsible for investigating alleged Chicago police misconduct. That was after a judge ordered the video release of a controversial police shooting. It showed then-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder.

SHARON FAIRLEY: We've seen a lot of these videos come out in the last few weeks, and they are really hard to watch in many cases.

CORLEY: Fairley warns that video doesn't guarantee a guilty verdict during a trial, but she says there are other ways it can be useful.

FAIRLEY: They are heart wrenching, but they are - it is important because it's how we learn about how the police department is operating so that we can then make change if it's appropriate.

CORLEY: It's a reckoning for how we look at policing, she says, and for how police officers learn to do their job.

CHUCK WEXLER: You know, it used to be a time when police would look at things and say, well, we don't want to Monday morning quarterback.

CORLEY: Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that focuses on policing issues.

WEXLER: Today, videos are making us think, how are we training officers? What should have been done? How do we intervene? So if you have an officer, say, who's had a series of complaints, you can review their body-worn video camera to see, you know, have they changed their behavior.

CORLEY: And there have been changes. The state of New York banned the use of chokeholds in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd. Both repeatedly cried out they couldn't breathe when restrained by police. In Chicago and elsewhere, training directives say an officer must intervene when there's misconduct by a colleague. The body camera video is to be the witness, but the Department of Justice says only about half the law enforcement agencies in the country have the technology. Arizona State University Professor Michael White helps run the DOJ's training program for body-worn cameras. He says agencies without cameras often cite cost as a barrier.

MICHAEL WHITE: But we've gotten to the point now where the public expects police officers to have body-worn cameras. And when a police department doesn't and there's a critical incident - a shooting, a pursuit, a use of force - and there's no footage, the community's upset.

CORLEY: White says a new grant program will help smaller police departments pay for the cameras. And he says there's definitely a benefit. While video can validate claims of police abuse that have often been dismissed, it can also protect officers who may be wrongfully accused.

INSKEEP: We've been listening there to NPR's Cheryl Corley, who is still with us. And Cheryl, I just want to note the goal has been - or at least one goal - that if police wore cameras, it would reduce future instances of police misconduct. Is that happening?

CORLEY: It really seems to be a mixed bag, Steve. Even during the Derek Chauvin trial, there was a shooting in a Minneapolis suburb after officers pulled over Duante Wright for a traffic stop. Those officers did have body cameras, and one of them has been charged now with manslaughter. So there's really been a lot of uncertainty over whether the technology is actually helpful.

However, there have been lots of studies, the latest one by the Council on Criminal Justice and the University of Chicago Crime Lab. It found that complaints against police fell by 17% and that the actual use of force fell by nearly 10% in the departments they studied where police wore body cameras. So obviously not a panacea, but limited research shows that type of video can be beneficial and, they say, also cost-effective.

INSKEEP: Cheryl, when you were talking about training there, I was thinking about the way that athletes use game films and wondering if police are now able to do almost the same thing; whether the traffic stop went well or badly, just go back routinely and look at how they did and critique their own performance.

CORLEY: Well, I think part of the problem is that there is so much video that they don't necessarily look at incidents unless there's a problem. But what has happened is that there are training sessions that are held by departments. And they'll look at these incidents that occur and say, let's talk about what went right here and let's talk about what went wrong.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Cheryl Corley. Thanks so much.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.