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Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis

How Videos of Police Brutality Traumatize African Americans and Undermine the Search for Justice

The nightmare haunts Victor Dempsey even in his waking hours, tightening his chest and snatching his breath. It is as if it’s waiting for him, and when he sleeps there’s no escape. The dream first came to him when he was waiting for the verdict in the 2017 criminal trial of the police officer who shot and killed—murdered, Dempsey believes—his unarmed brother, Delrawn Small. The two brothers are running, laughing, across rooftops, like they did as boys in their Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Then they come to a gap. Dempsey jumps for the next rooftop. He lands it. But as he looks back, calling his brother’s name, he sees Small fall into the inky darkness, and he jolts awake.

On those nights, Dempsey, 33, leaves his fiancé and his three-year-old son, and stumbles sleepily down the stairs of their home in Queens. He sits at the computer and watches the surveillance footage from an auto shop security camera in East New York of the final moments of his brother’s life. The footage, a minute and 45 seconds long, shows two cars stopped at a red light. One carries Small, driving his girlfriend, their young son, and teenaged stepdaughter home from a July 4 barbecue. The other, Wayne Isaacs, a 38-year-old police officer who had just finished a 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the 79th precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Police later told the media that the two drivers had gotten into a traffic dispute moments before Isaacs fired his gun at Small. The video shows Small exiting his car and walking up to Isaacs’s unmarked vehicle. Within seconds, from inside his car, Isaacs shoots Small three times. (The autopsy showed that one bullet pierced Small’s chest, another his stomach, and a third grazed his head.) Small falls back, gets up, lurches a few steps, and collapses between two parked cars.

“I know that video,” Dempsey told me recently. He has watched it hundreds of times, pausing, rewinding, and studying it frame by frame, so carefully that the images of it loop in his mind long after he has left the glare of his computer screen. “I can look at it without looking at it,” he said. The images also torment him with questions: Why didn’t Isaacs roll up the window? Or drive away? Or brandish his badge instead of his gun? “Why did he feel he had the authority to kill my brother?”

Small was the first of three black men whose death at the hands of police over the course of three days in July 2016 gained media attention. On July 5, Alton Sterling, 37, died after police in Louisiana tackled and shot him outside the convenience store where he was selling CDs. The following day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in Minnesota during a traffic stop. The horrific eyewitness videos of both shootings immediately went viral on social media. One social media post of the leaked video of Small’s death has since been viewed more than 70,000 times.

Historically, such searing images have helped gather support for legal reforms against racial discrimination and state violence against African American people. In the 1890s, Ida B. Wells documented lynchings across the United States, publishing statistics and details of several dozen of the killings in pamphlets such as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases and The Red Record. According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 4,000 African Americans were lynched across 20 states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. (In 2018, for the first time in American history, the Senate passed a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime.) During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, photographers captured images of African American demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and law enforcement officials wielding billy clubs and fire hoses. A generation later, in 1991, video of Rodney King being clubbed and kicked by police was broadcast on national and world news.

In the digital age, however, images of police violence have never been as widespread. No longer confined to mainstream news coverage, these incidents are on our Facebook and Twitter feeds instantly and continually: police firing at Walter Scott as he bolts away; five-year-old Kodi Gaines telling his mother “They trying to kill us” moments before police shot and killed her and wounded him in their apartment; Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breathe” as New York City officers gripped him in a chokehold.

With the ubiquity of smartphones and dash and body cameras, there is ample footage to expose police violence and grab the nation’s attention. In a virtually unlimited digital space, the images spread fast and far. Footage has refuted police accounts, revealed crucial facts withheld from families of victims, and sparked campaigns for justice and reform. “The racial justice movement against state violence would not have accelerated at the quick pace that it did without these videos,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Yet because the images of police violence are so pervasive, they inflict a unique harm on viewers, particularly African Americans, who see themselves and those they love in these fatal encounters. This recognition becomes a form of violence in and of itself—and even more so when justice is denied.

For Dempsey and scores of viewers who watched the surveillance video, the shooting death of Small was a clear-cut crime. When the shooting was first reported in the media, Isaacs and the New York City police department said that Small had exited his car and repeatedly punched Isaacs in his face through Isaacs’s car window. Isaacs said he feared for his life, a justification that has been routinely deployed by police officers when they use deadly force on African Americans. But the video, Dempsey said, “is like truth serum.”

Four days after the shooting, the footage was leaked, disputing the police account. The family thought the video would be enough to prove that Isaacs had used excessive force. “That was our hope,” Dempsey said. “That was our redemption. That was our justice.” So when the murder trial inside Brooklyn Supreme Court ended with a not-guilty verdict in the fall of 2017, “it was literally like losing him twice,” Dempsey told me. “It was like he got killed in front of us again.”

“So these videos don’t mean anything,” he added. “So now, what the hell matters?”

Victor Dempsey, brother of Delrawn Small, says the video of Small’s death is seared in his mind. “I can look at it without looking at it,” he says.
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Social scientists have a theory about “linked fate”: In the African American community, individual life chances are recognized as inextricably tied to the race as a whole. So when black people watch a video of police violence against another black person, they see themselves or their loved ones in that person’s place, knowing that the same fateful encounter could very well happen to them. “It’s an image now stuck in your head forever,” said Monnica Williams, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut who specializes in race-based trauma. “You carry that horror around with you.” Viewing such images, various studies show, induces stress, fear, frustration, anger, and anxiety. There is also preliminary evidence suggesting that these images could lead to a cascading series of physical ailments, including eating and sleeping disorders, high blood pressure, and heart problems.

Williams said that viewers also start to think differently about their world. They feel their future is limited, while any symbol of the police can impart a sense of fear and dread. The images “remind them of the cheapness of black life,” Muhammad said. This feeling deepens when these videos showing violent black death are treated by the media as death porn or perverse entertainment. “To just have black bodies laying out on the street,” Williams said, “like roadkill for everybody to see—this is dehumanizing and traumatic.”

There is also concern that viewers might eventually become inured to these images, indelible as they are, which might dampen efforts to hold accountable the police officers and the criminal justice system. Conversely, such repeated footage can also make some viewers so piercingly aware of police violence that they instinctively disengage from the police rather than risk facing them. For weeks, Denzell Jackson, 22, a barber and truck driver from Pittsburgh, continuously watched the eyewitness video of police firing gunshots at 17-year-old Antwon Rose as he ran away from them. “To remind myself of what could, can, and most likely will happen at anytime,” Jackson told me. “Everyone needs to be aware.” The video intensified his fears of police. Jackson said, “I’m scared for my life any time a cop is around.”

He is not alone. In many black communities, residents hesitate before calling the police—either because officers rarely show up, or because of fear of what may happen if they do. When Dave Reiling called 911 in Sacramento, California, last year to report that someone had broken into his truck, the officers who responded shot his 22-year-old neighbor Clark, a father of two, eight times in Clark’s grandparents’ backyard, killing him. Clark was unarmed. His name was soon trending on social media, and when police released body cam video of how his shooting unfolded, posts were viewed more than one million times. “It makes me never want to call 911 again,” Reiling, who is white, told the media. “They shot an innocent person.”

It is not only videos of police violence that traumatize black viewers, but also the response from commenters once the footage has been posted. On social media, some users blame the victim in “why didn’t he just…” or “she should have just …” admonishments. Some white Americans “don’t understand, see, or appreciate our reality,” said Williams of the University of Connecticut. “They walk around in a very privileged space so they don’t even see racism that’s happening in front of them.” The result, Williams said, is that “they are constantly hurting us.” And a seemingly innocuous response, or no response at all from friends, to a video of police violence on social media can carry over into everyday life, causing some black Americans to mask their pain and anger in spaces such as the office or a dinner party.           

This trauma is compounded when videos reveal what seems to be a clear case of excessive or unnecessary police force, only for the officers involved to not face charges or be acquitted, routinely by a mostly white jury. When Gregory Hill Jr., a soon-to-be married father of three, was shot through his garage door, media published a haunting image of Hill lying in a pool of blood. The Florida jury that deliberated the wrongful death case awarded the family just $4 in damages. In response to the ruling, the Hill family lawyer told the media: “This says, black lives don’t matter.”

“We saw Eric Garner get choked to death,” said Kesi Foster, a 36-year-old youth community organizer based in Brooklyn. “We saw Saheed Vassell get shot down. We saw Ramarley Graham run into his house. And the mayor says nothing is wrong here, go about your day. There is no accountability for being executed on the street.” Foster and the teens in his program have regularly joined families of police violence at rallies to call for justice and reform. “It’s a constant struggle in trying to navigate it,” he said of the images and their repercussions, “in a way that’s not paralyzing or traumatizing.” 

After the funeral for his son Saheed, which was attended by hundreds of people, Eric Vassell watched, over and over, the surveillance video of Saheed being shot and killed in their Crown Heights, Brooklyn, neighborhood by police officers. He would pause it. He would slow it down and count the seconds: one, two, three, four, five. Five seconds, Vassell counted, for the unmarked police car to turn onto a street nearby his family’s home, and for four officers to start firing at his son. Police said Saheed had pointed an object at them, which two callers to 911 had previously identified as a gun or possible gun. The object was actually a piece of a welding torch. Vassell keeps a photo of it on his cell phone as evidence that the shooting of his son by police was unjustified. “Saheed should still be alive today,” Vassell told me. The state attorney general has opened an investigation into the shooting.

Months after Saheed was buried, parts of Crown Heights are still in mourning. Some of the local businesses display pictures of him in their windows. Many owners remember Saheed as a child, when he would volunteer to do odd jobs for customers, like carrying stuffed grocery bags for a dollar. Vassell is often stopped on the street in the neighborhood. People, some of them strangers, hug him and ask, “Pops, how you holding on?” His wife still cries every day.

Eric Vassell says he believes the death of his son, Saheed, will lead to reform. He is demanding that the police officers who shot Saheed be arrested and prosecuted.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But Vassell steels himself with the belief that Saheed was sacrificed to raise awareness about police violence—and to ultimately facilitate reform. He has been waiting for the city to release the police department’s unedited footage of the shooting, as well as the names of the four officers who shot and killed Saheed, all of whom he thinks should be arrested and prosecuted for his son’s death. He said he has also sued the city for $25 million. “But what could they give me?” Vassell asked. “There is no amount. My pain will always remain.”

To Vassell and other people whose lives have been shattered by police violence, justice lies in police accountability, which includes full access to city surveillance footage and police records. He—along with Eric Garner’s mother and Delrawn Small’s brother and sister—have called for the repeal of a New York state law that they say shields bad police officers’ personnel files and allows for racially biased and violent officers to continue policing communities. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws for body cameras. But in some states, to the frustration of impacted family members, activists, and local politicians, such footage is not public record, or local governments can limit how much footage is released.

In some cases, it is clear why police would want to keep their behavior hidden.

After body-cam footage was posted of a BART officer in West Oakland fatally shooting 28-year-old Sahleem Tindle three times in the back last January, as he wrestled on the ground with another man, it has been viewed more than 10,000 times. The media had reported that police initially said Tindle had been wielding a gun. Still, Tindle’s mother, Yolanda Banks-Reed, told me, “I don’t just want likes and shares, I want help.”

Banks-Reed went on to found Mothers Fight Back, writing letters, making calls, storming city meetings, and demanding justice for her son and police reform from elected officials. She, like Vassell, also wanted the officer who shot and killed her son to face criminal charges. Over the summer, she organized a rally at the state capital that included audio recordings of mothers who had lost children to gun and police violence. About three months later, in October 2018, the county prosecutor declined to file criminal charges against the officer involved. The officer reasonably believed, the investigation concluded, that he was acting in self-defense and the defense of others. 

Some videos that refute police accounts have aided in indictments and convictions. In August 2018, Roy Oliver, a police officer in Texas who shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Edwards’s murder. Police camera footage played a key role in the trial: Edwards and four other high-schoolers were driving away from what a 911-caller had described as a rowdy house party in a Dallas suburb when Oliver fired five shots into the teens’ car. Before his arrest, Oliver said that their vehicle had backed toward his partner, and that he feared for his partner’s life. But the footage played for jurors showed the car backing up then driving away, past Oliver and his partner. One leaked clip showed Edwards’s stepbrother exiting the car with his hands up pleading with officers: “Please help us. He’s dead. Please don’t shoot me.”

Still, the videos may not have been the decisive factor in the court case. During the trial, Oliver’s partner essentially testified against him, saying he did not fear for his life, and did not think he would be hit by the teens’ car.

Ultimately, Williams said, video accounts alone have brought about few, if any, substantial police reforms. They have brought widespread awareness that implicit racial bias indeed exists within police departments. However, that basic fact is now bitterly, painfully clear, and the question is what comes next for America, in terms of actual change. “This isn’t rocket science,” said Muhammad of Harvard. “We certainly don’t want more of them to strengthen the case.”

There have been efforts to counter the “blue wall of silence” ingrained in police culture. Voters in some cities have ousted longtime prosecutors and replaced them with officials who promised, during their campaigns, to hold police officers accountable. Some family members of those killed by police—like Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden—have announced bids for local political offices. (McSpadden is running for City Council in Ferguson, Missouri.)

Some police departments have introduced de-escalation and implicit bias training. Last year, the District of Columbia’s police department even made it mandatory for officers to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is hard to measure what, if any, impact the exposure will have on police relations with black communities. Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay’s College of Criminal Justice, pointed out that several departments now tell their officers they have a “duty to intervene” when they witness one of their own involved in illegal or questionable behavior during encounters with the public. 

Meanwhile, justice in the courtroom largely remains elusive. After a Chicago police officer shot and killed Laquan McDonald in 2014, initial police reports ruled the shooting justified. Then, thirteen months later, the police department released damning dash cam video of McDonald walking away before an officer began shooting at him, 16 times in total. In October 2018, the officer was convicted of second-degree murder. In January, a judge sentenced the officer to six years and nine months in prison. The former officer must serve two years of his sentence to be eligible for probation.

The sentencing came as a disappointment on social media. Commenters like Kevin Covington, who watched footage of the shooting, said that the amount of prison time was not nearly enough and that the whole trial felt like a sad, horrid joke. “It just confirms what you feel,” Covington, the 51-year-old father of two sons and a college administrator in Philadelphia, where he works with an enrichment program for young, black males, told me. “It used to be your word against their word. Then, ‘Wait until there’s a video,’” he said. “It just brings me to the point of these things happen because white America stills view black people in one way: dangerous. Like, you don’t have any rights to be here. It’s our reality today and has been for too long.”

The advent of new technologies has allowed us to chronicle and testify to a horribly entrenched truth: The American justice system continually, daily devalues black bodies. It has only been forced to reckon with the reality of its own bias when a flash of video shows, in soul-wrenching detail, the ease with which a life can be extinguished. This revelation comes at a cost to the well-being of African Americans across the country who are exposed to these images at the swipe of a finger or the click of a mouse. And so far, with precious little to show by way of significant and lasting reform, the cost has been too high.