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Documenting police brutality and misconduct

In this issue we will talk about what is police brutality and misconduct and how some groups fight it with the help of simple use of mobile camera.

By Aliya Rakhmetova and Arielle Reid
The task of enforcing the law and keeping peace and order on the streets is a difficult and honorable task. It is also a big responsibility, because the officer when wearing his or her uniform represents the law and the state and every his/her move and word is official. In fact in all countries police has a set of standard procedures of what phrases to say and what steps to do when arresting a person. The task of a police officer is to stop the suspect and to deliver him/her to the judge and never it is the responsibility of the police to actually judge and punish the suspect in one way or the other.

In this article we do not state that all the police officers are brutal and bad. On the contrary, we advise civil society to help the Ministries of Interior to clean up their ranks and to filter out persons who are not suitable to serve the society.

What is police brutality and misconduct?
Sadly, sex workers, drug users, physically challenged people, representatives of LGBTQ and ethnic minorities become objects of violence and brutal treatment more often than other members of the same society in every country. And such treatment can sometimes come from the law enforcement units, the very people who actually gave a pledge to promote peace and order in the country and to protect its citizens.

In simple terms, police brutality is the intentional use of excessive force, usually physical, but potentially also in the form of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by a police officer. It is one of several forms of police misconduct.
Police misconduct is a broader term and it includes:

• false arrest,
• intimidation,
• racial profiling,
• political repression,
• surveillance abuse,
• sexual abuse,
• police corruption.

Why document it?
There are many situations when exposing a video camera, or even a small photographic one, may be enough to change the situation to worse and put yourself and the abused person in graver danger. In these cases you may want to just turn to something as simple as a mobile. Using mobile phones is easy and most of the phones now are equipped with small cameras with which you can take short videos or pictures.
Use your camera to make a difference in this world.

• Your video evidence can help prove that this particular officer is guilty
• Your video evidence can start a public discussion of police behavior in your country
• Your video evidence can help prevent abuse by this same officer in future
• Your video evidence can help to finally stop police brutality in your country

Case study 1: Year 1991. Rodney Glen King (born April 2, 1965 in Sacramento, California) is a Black American who, on March 3, 1991, was the victim in an excessive force case committed by Los Angeles police officers. A bystander, George Holliday, videotaped much of the incident from a distance.
The footage showed LAPD officers repeatedly striking King with their batons. A portion of this footage was aired by news agencies around the world, causing public outrage that raised tensions between the black community and the LAPD and increased anger over police brutality and issues such as unemployment, racial tension, poverty, and numerous other social inequalities in the black/African-American community.
The jury found Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon guilty, who were subsequently sentenced to 30 months in prison, while Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of all charges. (read more on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King) .

Case study 2: Year 2009. At approximately 2:15 AM on New Year's Day, Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed black man was shot by police officers while laying face-down on a BART subway platform in Oakland, California. This is one of the many videos that are circulating online about the incident. The videos document Grant being restrained, laying face-down on the platform and with two officers restraining him - one with his knee on the back of Grant's neck. Within seconds, the second officer restraining Grant rises to his feet, unholsters his gun and fires one shot into Grant's back. Grant died seven hours later in a nearby hospital. (report on WITNESS http://hub.witness.org/en/node/11825 )

The shooting spawned public outrage and a string of protests that led to more than 100 riot-related arrests.

Currently former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle is supposed to stand trial for murder in the New Year's Day shooting death of an unarmed man, as Alameda County judge ruled several days ago. The case is not closed yet. Video update on the Grant case is here.

What do you do with the video?

• Pass the video to the person who had been abused so that he or she can use it as evidence in court,
• upload it to one of the websites or blogs dedicated to fighting police misconduct,
• pass a copy of the video to media and make this incident visible to whole society.

Various community groups have criticized police brutality. These groups often stress the need for oversight by independent citizen review boards and other methods of ensuring accountability for police action. Tools used by these groups include video recordings, which are sometimes broadcast using websites such as YouTube.

Copwatch is a U.S.-based network of organizations that actively monitors and videotapes the police to prevent police brutality. Umbrella organizations and justice committees (often named after a deceased individual or those victimized by police violence) usually engage in a solidarity of those affected.

Communities United Against Police Brutality - This organization was created to deal with police brutality on an ongoing basis. We work on the day-to-day abuses as well as taking on the more extreme cases. We work to combat police brutality from many angles, including political and legislative action, education, research, and providing services and support for victims and their families. 

Amnesty International is another organization active in the issue of police brutality.

WITNESS - is a United-States-based organisation that uses the power of visual presentation to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses in an effort to “catalyse grassroots activism, political engagement, and lasting change". The organization has developed a Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism which walks you through all stages of video making, from the strategy and preparation to advocacy and distribution of your video. (Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Russian (available for free download on the WITNESS website).

News portals sometimes create sections dedicate to state injustice. For example a Russian news portal “Novaja Gazeta” provides coverage of police misconduct in Russia. 

The Observers, France, is another news portal that highlights cases of police brutality across the globe and provides coverage and update of the story

TV journalists hold investigations to expose corruption and use the video to start a public debate. See a reportage on Ukrainian police caught pimping sex workers in the street.

How do you film it?
If you are witnessing a case of police brutality or misconduct and you wish to document it, here are some tips on how to make a good video and how to avoid getting in trouble for what you do. It is important to note that taking videos or pictures in public is legal, as long you are on public property. Stay a safe distance away from the intervention so as to protect yourself and to make it possible for you to record what is happening without getting in the middle of an arrest or incident. When you observe police remember that you don’t want to make the cop more nervous than they already are. Keep your hands visible at all times. Don’t approach an officer from behind or stand behind them. Don’t make any sudden movements or raise your voice to the cop. Try to keep the situation calm. You don’t want to get the person in more trouble. If an officer tells you to step back, tell the officer that YOU DO NOT WANT TO INTERFERE, YOU SIMPLY WISH TO OBSERVE.

The experience of Copwatch could be useful in our case:

  • Be polite to everyone you meet including the police. Don’t insult or incite them. This is counterproductive.
  • Don’t carry anything illegal or give cops an opportunity to bust you for something unrelated to you documenting a police intervention.
  • If a stop escalates into unnecessary use of force use whatever tools at your disposal to record and document the situation.
  • Try to be helpful to the citizen being stopped without making his/her situation worse. The goal is to defuse the incidents of harassment and violence, not escalate them.

Here are some other pieces of advice on the ways of filming. For instance, Guerilla Documenting website suggests taking snap shots with your mobile phone camera if the situation does not allow to use a professional video camera. If you are filming with your mobile, the best way to keep unnoticed will be to pretend that you are typing a text message or dialing a phone number. To do this you need to keep it below head level, but try and make it as vertical as possible to retain directness of images. If people become aware of you and your phone you can easily make it look as though you were preparing for a phone call.

With more technically advanced mobile phones, it is possible to make audio recording, this can be great if you cannot bring out your phone at all. With this you can set it to record and have it act as an audio device. It is not as good as having video or photos, but it is some form of documentation.

Remember to immediately send your captured media to someone else, preserving it if anything happens to you or your phone.

One African filmmaker found a creative way around government restrictions and censorship on filming in Congo to avoid exposure of corruption, abuse and poverty in the region. He tied his cell phone to a toy car, set it to recording and gave the toy car to a girl to pull it behind her by a string as she walked along the streets of the town. 

What if you are the object of police brutality?
SWAN news published some ideas on urgent actions to police abuse: read Documenting Police Abuse .
Communities United Against Police Brutality suggest the following:

  1. If you are being arrested, try your best to remain calm. Do not make sudden movements or pull back. If not handcuffed, keep your hands visible and away from pockets. State clearly and repeatedly "I am not resisting arrest.”
  2. Do your best to get police officer names, badge numbers, and squad car numbers. If necessary, shout them out and have someone else write them down. If anyone is ticketed or arrested, at least some of this info will be on the ticket and/or police report.
  3. Get names and phone numbers of all witnesses.
  4. If you are injured, get health care right away. State to the caregiver that your injuries were caused by police and be certain that it is noted in your medical record. Take a copy of your medical record with you when you leave the health care facility.
  5. Have your injuries photographed immediately, using good quality color film. If a health care facility takes pictures, take a copy of the pictures with you or, better yet, have them take pictures with your camera and take it with you when you leave.
  6. Sit down right away and write down every detail about your incident. Call and ask all witnesses to do the same. Collect the statements from the witnesses.
  7. If your incident involves anything more than police officer rudeness, see a lawyer before reporting to Civilian Review Authority or Internal Affairs Division. Do not share any evidence such as videotapes or witness statements with above mentioned divisions without advice of a lawyer.
  8. As soon after the incident as possible, go to the police department and request copies of all police reports.

In addition, Street medics, or action medics, provide some tips on how to make a better picture if you are documenting injuries:

How to photograph injuries
Even the marks of severe injuries can disappear quickly. Generally, the darker your skin is the less your injuries will show up on film, and the more important it is to follow these guidelines.

  • The better your camera and film is, the better your pictures will turn out. A regular 35mm camera is better than a disposable one, but if that’s all you have, don’t wait to get a 35mm before you start taking pictures.
  • The first picture should be of your whole body. After that, the photographer should get close to the injury, taking pictures as they’re getting closer to it. This proves that you’re the injured person in the pictures, and you don’t just have close-up pictures of someoneelse’s bruised arms.
  • Take pictures as close as possible to the injury to show the most detail. Be aware of the limitations of your camera – it’ll get fuzzy the closer you get, especially if it’s a disposable camera. The label on your disposable camera should tell you how close you can take pictures with it. For regular cameras, the best distance varies with your equipment, but three feet is a safe distance.
  • If it’s a small injury, it’s even more important to get a good photograph of it. Try taking pictures of it from different angles, with different light (direct sunlight, indirect lighting, etc.).
  • Be careful not to use a flash when taking a close-in picture. Flashes, bright light and spotlights right on the injury tend to reflect off the skin.
  • If it’s a big injury, put a ruler next to it in one of the pictures to show how big it is (but make sure you take some pictures without the ruler, to show you aren’t hiding anything). If you don’t have a ruler, use something with a standard size, like a dollar bill.
  • Don’t rely on any one picture to show your injury. You should take at least six pictures of any one injury.
  • Right after the incident, take a full roll of pictures of all your injuries.
  • Keep taking pictures every day or every other day to show how they change. For example, bruises can take a few days to fully darken.
  • Keep taking at least six pictures of each injury.
  • Keep a diary of who took the pictures and when you took them, so you know that photo #22 is from the sixth day after you were attacked and your mom took the picture.
  • You should have a blank wall behind you in the pictures – no clutter or personal items in the background.
  • Don’t smile or frown in your pictures. Try to have a neutral expression. Also, don’t flex your muscles or pose more than you have to show your injury.
  • Do the same for every injury you have.

Talking to doctors to document injuries

  • The good news is that doctor’s testimony is given a lot of weight by the courts and by the press, and having a doctor’s report on your injuries, especially ones you can’t see, can really help your case.
  • Go to a doctor you can trust as soon as possible. If you can’t afford to pay for one, check the phonebook for clinics where you can get treatment for free.
  • A lot of injuries disappear quickly and are hard to see – like the marks handcuffs leave when they’re put on too tight. When you go to a hospital (and if you feel safe), tell every nurse, technician, and doctor who looks at you about each of your injuries (including less severe ones) and how you got them.
  • It’s important, especially in a free clinic, not to let doctors or medics rush you so that you can’t tell them about each of your injuries and how you got them. Ask them to write down your injuries in detail, especially injuries you can’t take pictures of, like sprains, strains, and things like broken noses or ribs.
  • Doctors see injuries all the time, and might not remember yours if they don’t document them on the spot.
  • If the doctor recommends follow up treatment or appointments, it’s important to go. This will give you more credibility and let the doctors keep documenting your injuries.
  • Hold onto any forms you get from anyone at the hospital/clinic.


It can be risky going to a hospital right after you’re injured by the police. Emergency room workers sometimes call the police when people come in looking like they’ve been in a fight – especially if they’re poor or of color.

However, there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe. For example, you can go to a doctor you have a relationship with, or be dressed up nice when you go. Of course, if it’s a potentially life-threatening injury, consider taking the risk of going to the closest hospital immediately. If you’ve already been cited and released or gone to jail and been released, you don’t risk as much by going to a hospital and telling them exactly what happened to you.

Other evidence

  • Keep a diary of all of your injuries. Lots of the effects of injuries don’t show up for days or weeks after, so keep a detailed log. Write down how your injuries feel, any new aches or pains, and any new problems you are having since the attack, and how you are feeling. Also include if you have missed any days of work because of these injuries.
  • Keep evidence! For example, if you have bloody clothes, put them in a garbage bag and put the bag in a freezer. Same goes for rubber bullets or tear gas canisters.
  • Also hold onto all paperwork you get from the cops or the court (e.g. arrest report, property receipts, booking photos, etc.).