The cost of bearing witness: watching and sharing videos of police brutality onlineBMJ 2023; 380 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p616 (Published 16 March 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p616
- Michelle A Williams, dean of the faculty at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
In recent weeks we’ve seen an uproar ring out after police killed an unarmed Black man in the United States. I’m speaking of Tyre Nichols, who died in January 2023 after being punched, kicked, and beaten by five Memphis officers from an “elite” unit. But I could be speaking about Eric Garner, or George Floyd, or Philando Castile, or Freddie Gray, or far too many others.
These assaults on Black people and communities by those appointed to “protect and serve” fit squarely within a centuries-old pattern of violence by state sanctioned actors.1
Our ability to watch the brutality unfold, however, is relatively new. With sickening regularity, police assaults are captured on surveillance cameras, cell phones, even the body and dashboard cameras meant to hold officers accountable for their actions. Then the footage is released to the public. We see the blows. We hear the cries. We witness another life extinguished. We grieve. We protest. We call for reform . . . And then it happens all over again.
I could bring myself to watch just one of the recordings of the Tyre Nichols killing. Ever since, I have been grappling with the impact of these videos.
They do, sometimes, ensure a measure of justice for the victims. On the Memphis recordings, you can hear the police officers concocting a story to explain their use of force. Without the video to shine a light on the facts, that story could have been the definitive version of events. Uncontested. The recordings exposed the truth. As a result, the officers will be held accountable.
There is a power, too, in forcing the public to bear witness. Remember what Emmett Till’s mother said after her son was tortured by a lynch mob: “Let the people see what they did to my boy.” Like Emmett’s open casket, video recordings of police brutality are raw and irrefutable proof of systemic oppression for those who would rather look away.
So, the videos do have value. Yet they are not the catalyst for change we might hope. After all, the number of Black people killed by police in the US increased in the two years after George Floyd’s death, which was filmed and shared widely online, and police killings rose to an all time high in 2022.2
It is also true that these videos are deeply traumatizing.
No one with Black skin needs to be reminded that this world is dangerous for us. Even our most innocuous activities—birdwatching or bug collecting—can prompt police interventions.34 These videos force us to reckon with the knowledge that such encounters can turn deadly without warning or reason.
A few years ago, my colleague David R Williams studied what happens to the public after an unarmed Black person is killed by police. He found that Black people in the state where the violence took place reported higher levels of poor mental health in the weeks after the incident.5 White residents did not. The study did not consider the impact of video recordings, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that this exposure to police violence would only exacerbate the mental health concerns.
This psychological strain has physical repercussions too. We know that the heightened stress of being subject to racism accelerates aging—a phenomenon known as “weathering”—and is linked to ailments ranging from heart disease to chronic inflammation.6 Anecdotally, I know from conversations with friends, colleagues, and loved ones that exposure to these videos can have an immense impact; the trauma of watching police officers savagely beat a Black person is hard to overcome, especially for children and young people.
It concerns me that these videos may normalize police violence, and in the process, create a sense of helplessness.
As a Black mother, I gave my son “the talk” as he was growing up.7 I explained how to act in public, how to interact with authority, how to avoid drawing hostile attention. Don’t run. Don’t talk back. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t give an officer any reason to get angry or feel afraid.
But the videos show that advice is useless when an officer of the law decides to act lawlessly. The police pelted Tyre Nichols with dozens of contradicting commands.8 They beat him even when he was handcuffed, on the ground, and of no risk to anyone. He was not an anomaly. Many videos of police brutality send the clear and terrifying message that compliance and deference will not save you—even if the officers are Black, even when emergency medical responders are on the scene.9 Imagine how that feels to the Black parents, teens, and children watching.
What’s next? There is no simple answer. It feels hopeless, but we cannot lose hope.
Yes, we must bear witness. We must also do the work. True change will require uprooting the structural racism that has burrowed so insidiously into our institutions. Every day that we delay in confronting these evils, the harms continue to mount—for the victims of police violence, and for all those who are forced to watch.
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.