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How To Use Your Smartphone Camera To Save Lives

A field guide for how to be a DIY documentarian and citizen activist

One night back in March of 2014, Kianga Mwamba was driving home and noticed several Baltimore police officers flanking a handcuffed man and beating him on the side of the road. Since she was already stopped at a red light, Mwamba decided to record the incident on her cellphone – until the police noticed what she was up to. When the officers realized they were being filmed they forced Mwamba out of her car and onto the ground. When she asked why she was being arrested one cop responded, “You just tried to run over an officer.”


Mwamba, the daughter of a police officer, was well-aware that it is within her civilian rights to lawfully record misconduct at the hands of law enforcement. But that didn’t keep her from spending a night behind bars after police charged her with assault and resisting arrest. Adding insult to injury, when Mwamba retrieved her belongings upon leaving the station she realized that her video had been deleted. Unfortunately for the police, that recording had automatically stored itself in her backup memory.

“It’s the best evidence,” Kerri Cohen, Mwamba’s lawyer, told WITNESS, a New York-based non-profit organization that teaches people how to use video for documenting human rights abuses. “Let [authorities] talk and say whatever they want to say. But you know what? Watch the video.”

Not only did Mwamba’s footage help acquit her of all charges but it also won her a $60,000 settlement from a civil suit she filed against the city of Baltimore. The recording isn’t polished. It’s shaky and out of focus, but still good enough to successfully expose yet another incident of police misconduct, this time involving undue force and verbal abuse against a woman of color.

While safety should always be the primary concern, Mwamba’s story goes to show that not much is required to be an on-the-spot activist. With little more than a cellphone camera and notepad, people can defend human rights and bring about much-needed change in the world with minimal extra effort.

And this is a lesson attorney Kelly Matheson has dedicated herself to teaching. She educates everyone from lawyers to citizen journalists to activists to human rights investigators on how to record video in such a way as to ensure it can help secure justice. In the heat of the moment, it can be challenging to think on your feet, which is why in her latest philanthropic project, a written resource entitled “The Video as Evidence Field Guide”, Matheson breaks down the essentials of filming a video, whether it’s intended for use in court of law or as part of a broader human rights investigation with evidentiary value. “Nowadays, everybody has a camera in their pocket,” she says. “You’re able to make the world a better place.”

In 1991, four LAPD officers were caught on tape in what Matheson calls the “first viral video.” It was the attack on Rodney King. A year after the incident a predominantly white jury acquitted the officers involved of all charges, triggering the L.A. Riots. While many believe the officers weren’t adequately punished, the confrontation did shed light on just how powerful a visual account of an unsettling incident can be. Or, as Matheson puts it, “It’s the point in time where video put human into human rights.”

Lately, civilians have had more success using video to bring bad guys to justice. In South Carolina, for example, white police officer Michael Slager was charged with murder after shooting an unarmed black man named Walter Scott in the back eight times as he ran away. Two months later, the state enacted a law requiring law enforcement to wear body cameras.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]If we want to have a system that holds people accountable, the camera is going to help this.[/quote]

It’s hard to know whether or not there’s been a surge in police violence in America, or if it only seems like a surge because bystanders equipped with cellphone cameras are finally able to record abuses of power. But it any case the uptick in documented incidents has nspired the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to create Mobile Justice, a free app that assists users who film police activity by sending footage directly to the ACLU for review. “Remain a safe distance from the interaction, and make sure you’re not breaking any laws such as jaywalking or trespassing,” warns ACLU strategist Marcus Benigno. “When filming, try to film wide so as to capture the entire shot. And refrain from narrating, as it is important to document any verbal exchange.”

Something documenters should be cognizant of is interjecting personal biases or observations into recordings. Recordings should be as objective as possible and not tampered with after filming, lest its credibility be diminished upon further examination. It may seem like an enormous challenge and overly complicated to capture a human rights offense on video the right way, but at the end of the day, “It’s about getting the shot,” says Matheson. In countries like Syria, where citizens lack a fair and reliable judicial system, a video — even if recorded poorly — could make all the difference in deciding whether the rest of the world will pay attention or not.

And despite how primed we’ve become to hearing about some fresh abuse of the badge in the United States, there are plenty of other circumstances where pressing “record” is warranted. Matheson recalls an incident in which crafty activists followed and recorded a truck spraying pesticides in New York City parks to keep mosquitoes out, even though there were kids playing in the area. She also points out a number of instances in which videos have been used to defend housing rights. “If we want to have a system that holds people accountable, the camera is going to help this,” Matheson notes.

There’s also the poignant effect of sharing personal narratives. In a striking television advertisement antiretroviral AIDS treatment made by South Africa’s Topsy Foundation, viewers see a patient named Selinah whither from a state of good health into near-death over the course of 90 days. Only at the end of the ad do viewers learn the clip is actually being played in reverse. Selinah’s health had actually improved thanks to Topsy, and once the video went viral it helped spark renewed interest in HIV/AIDS, prompting initiatives to raise money and give patients like Selinah a second chance.

“[These kinds of videos] don’t necessarily equate to legal,” says Matisse Bustos-Hawkes, a communications manager at WITNESS who also speaks and blogs about how video affects the dynamic of human rights defense. “They’re providing testimonials. They’re just putting stories on the record. There’s an act of truth-telling that’s related to that, and solidarity.”

The emotional appeal of testimonials like Selinah’s can be a powerful agent of change. A vision of slow human suffering is its own kind atrocity, and is as gripping as watching a terrible incident of police brutality unfold. Elizabeth Kandolo, a rural woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, recounted her rape at the hands of DRC soldiers in a video interview. But when she reported incident to authorities they failed to act and told her, “You’re too old. You can’t be raped.”

“A trial is one step,” says Bustos-Hawkes. “There’s a lot of video-level accountability. [A victim] does an interview once, and doesn’t have to keep talking about it. Her voice can reach courtrooms in Europe and the United States, and it can have a profound effect in that kind of way.”

But filming may not even be the hardest part. If an evidentiary video is not handled with care it runs the risk of hurting a cause more than it helps by possibly endangering people or making light of a grave issue. “Once you have a video,” says Matheson, “press the ‘pause’ button, because then you have to think what are your options and make a cautious decision.” In the case of a testimonial, informed consent should always be provided by the subject. And in situations involving events like excessive force by law enforcement, surrendering a recording to the proper authorities might not be an option if they are the offenders. Just ask Kianga Mwamba.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Nowadays, everybody has a camera in their pocket. You’re able to make the world a better place[/quote]

“You have to ask yourself what you can do after, so you can actually create concrete change,” says Matheson. Options include sending the video to a lawyer who can advise on a next course of action such as submitting it to the relevant (trustworthy) authorities, presenting it to human rights organizations, or taking matters into your own hands and posting it online. But if you go that route, Benigno emphasizes that social platforms are visually driven so videos and photos are best. In other words, treating a screengrab of your long note isn’t going to draw as many eyes.

It might be true that justice is best served cold. By amassing a collection of relevant testimonies, facts, speeches and other media, a very compelling case can be made against an attacker. This, in turn, can raise awareness about important human rights issues like excessive use of force by police officers or rape. With the internet’s potential to turn any post, image or video into a viral phenomenon, victims will not only have a voice but a global stage on which to speak. The world can change with literally the push of a button. “We have a right to science, and technology is a science. If scientists come up with a cure for breast cancer, we as a people are allowed to benefit,” says Matheson. “If there’s a technology that can lead us to a more just world, then we by international human rights law are allowed access to this technology.”

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