It can be hard to believe that claims of police brutality aren’t just works of fiction created by drunk young men stumbling about Sydney’s Kings Cross at night. But, from time to time, these allegations turn out to be true. It’s an awful feeling to discover that the hands of the people we place our safety, and ultimately our lives, could be so cruel, but it does happen. At times like these, it’s important to remember that CCTV cameras are everywhere these days, and any personal injury lawyer will tell you that CCTV footage is very hard evidence to discredit. So how does CCTV footage come into play in cases of police brutality?
In March this year, questions of police brutality in Sydney emerged after footage of Jamie Jackson being arrested at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras worked its way around the media. These questions were discussed on the ABC’s Radio National Law Report program.
The footage shows a young man who is handcuffed being roughly forced to the ground. In the footage a police officer can be heard telling the filmer that they can’t film as it’s not allowed. For a start, that’s completely untrue. Secondly, it suggests that either the police officer is unsure of what he’s doing himself, or that he’s aware that he’s overstepped the mark in terms of just measures of restraint. But the Mardi Gras incident is not a stand-alone occurrence.
It’s a common thing around the world for people to use video evidence as a means of proving police brutality. If the footage is clear enough, and the context is right, it can be almost impossible to say that the incident didn’t happen the way it appeared to on film. And the police force is aware of it, some members of the police will even go so far as to distract members of the public who are filming incidents and turn their attention away from the potentially illegal misuse of force.
One disturbing case of this distraction technique to the extreme was that of Corey Barker. Barker spent a over year being wrongly accused of assaulting a police officer. The truth of the matter was that Barker had seen some police officers arresting someone, so he took out a mobile phone and began to film it. A police officer came from another direction and tackled Barker to the ground. He was taken to a police station where he was asked to unlock the phone so the police could find out if there was any footage of what had gone on. Barker refused to do so, and he was abused, punched and kicked.
In normal circumstances, Barker wouldn’t have had to front to court on charges of assault as the CCTV cameras in the police station would have clearly shown that he was the victim of assault, not the other way around. However, disturbingly, the footage from those CCTV cameras was tampered with, and it was a huge effort for both the defence team and the court to have the footage repaired. Of course, Barker was found to be telling the truth.
Worryingly, when in court, the police officers questioned all told the same story of Barker punching a member of the police force. They were very neat in the way that they all described the punch in the same way. When combined with the fact that someone or some people had removed the CCTV footage, there was a very obvious case of the police trying to cover up their wrongs.
In the end, the case against Barker was dismissed and the whole affair was referred to the Police Integrity Commission, thanks to the lengths these officers went to hide their guilt. Two officers narrowly avoided also being found in contempt of court.
It’s interesting to note that it was the CCTV footage that saved Barker from a charge of assaulting police, as the CCTV camera provides a very neutral context. It wasn’t being directed by anybody, so it wasn’t only capturing the images and sounds a particular person wanted to be seen. Perhaps if a person had filmed it, for instance a friend of Barker, they would have focused on the wounds they the police officers inflicted, or the pain coming across Barker’s face. Or if it’d been another officer filming, they would have only filmed Barker’s refusal to show the footage he’d recorded on his phone, and tried to suggest that Barker was the one refusing to cooperate and therefore the ‘bad guy’.
If you can take anything away from these two incidents and the questions they bring up, it’s that video evidence, particularly CCTV footage, is extremely hard to not only discredit but to remove from the court entirely. No matter what is argued, there’s still a video saying what really went on.