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Why Americans see different things when looking at same police videos (+video)

Understanding others

An officer was charged with manslaughter in Tulsa, Okla., in one police shooting. In Charlotte, N.C., where the governor declared a state of emergency after violent protests, the police chief said he would not release video in another shooting.

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    Protesters block an intersection near the Transit Center as they march uptown in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday. Authorities in Charlotte tried to quell public anger after a police officer shot a black man, but a dusk prayer vigil turned into a second night of violence, with police firing tear gas at angry protesters and a man being critically wounded by gunfire. North Carolina's governor declared a state of emergency in the city.
    Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer/AP
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When Charlotte, N.C., resident Jason Terrell attended the vigil preceding Wednesday’s protests, he thought that one of the most frustrating parts of the ongoing racial unrest across the country was the nearly total breakdown in trust between communities like his and the police.

It’s to the point, he says, that even when watching videos like those that show Terence Crutcher raising his arms near his broken down-vehicle, and then being shot and killed by wary police on a Tulsa, Okla., highway, different groups see different things. One group sees an unarmed father being shot by the side of the road; the other sees a man, possibly high on drugs, refusing to obey police commands.

It’s also to the point that while the police say Keith Scott brandished a gun when police approached his parked car near an apartment complex in his hometown of Charlotte, his family insist that he was holding a book before he was shot and killed. 

“Personally, I try to be very objective,” says Mr. Terrell, the director of development and co-CEO of Profound Gentlemen, a community advocacy group that seeks to support male teachers of color become mentors for young students. “I can see the gray areas in a lot of these cases, I’m able to see some justice in some of the police accounts and police testimony,... but it seems so clear that there’s just no justification for this kind of use of force being used against these guys.”

In Tulsa on Thursday, Officer Betty Shelby was charged with manslaughter in the death of Mr. Crutcher. In Charlotte, where the governor declared a state of emergency after violent protests that left one man critically wounded, Chief Kerr Putney of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said that his department would not release the police recordings of Mr. Scott’s shooting.

“The video does not give me absolute, definitive, visual evidence that would confirm that a person is pointing a gun,” the chief said at a news conference.

But he says the videos, which will be shown to the family, did corroborate the official version of the encounter, buttressing witness accounts and other evidence.

A question of perception

On the one hand, the breakdown in trust between black communities and the criminal justice system has a long history, many community members say – and not simply going back to the many instances of killings that include Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and numerous others, which together helped launch and galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet the breakdown of trust has also become a broader phenomenon the past few years, many scholars note.

“I would argue that trust is foundational for all our social interactions,” says Brad Reid, senior scholar at the Dean Institute for Corporate Governance and Integrity at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. “And I would further argue that it's hard to create or sustain a broader society if  you can’t trust other people or institutions.”

Since 2007, the Great Recession has prompted many to distrust the nation’s financial systems. Hyper-partisanship and congressional gridlock, as well as the feeling among Democrats and Republicans alike that the nation’s political institutions are “rigged,” have spurred voter unrest. And the current presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are the least trusted in recent memory, according to polls.

Add to this, too, that more than 2 out of 3 Americans now say that the mass media fails “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” according to a Gallup poll this month – which notes this is the lowest level of trust in Gallup polling history.

The result is a “corrosive cynicism” that has begun to spread throughout the American social matrix, Professor Reid says. And while its causes are complex and in many ways far from unprecedented, a lot has to do with the ways in which Americans consume and digest information within the tumultuous era of digital information.

Certain groups filter, almost unconsciously, the information they see “so that every event is a piece in that puzzle of their world view, everything is filtered through the lenses of that worldview,” says Reid. “And then groups tend to talk past each other. When they have radically different perceptions of what’s going on in their world, just even framing a common agenda is difficult.”

'North Carolina is an open carry state'

For Terrell, the dispute over the facts surrounding Scott’s shooting belie a larger issue, however.

“Even regardless if he had a gun or a book, North Carolina is an open carry state,” says Terrell, who has a license to carry a firearm. “So constitutionally, he should have been allowed to have a gun on his person. And he wasn’t being targeted by police there wasn’t a warrant out for his arrest.”

Despite having no motives to resist, officers perceived these men’s actions as threats to their lives and killed them.

Terrell admits that he worries sometimes about his own safety.

“It is a concern. It’s something I think about. I got into it with my father, we go out to shoot sometimes at the range. It’s a sport, something I like to do, something I want to learn more about doing, and it’s also my constitutional right,” he says. “But I’m fearful of that, because carrying a gun sometimes could be perceived to be negative – I don’t know, because of the environment I’m in, or because of my skin tone, or what have you. So I’m not always able to really feel good about that right to carry a gun.”

More information, more cameras – but less trust

It is such dramatically varying perceptions, both on the ground and in the ways people interpret the videos of these encounters, that are rooted in a profound lack of trust.

“Lack of trust goes both ways,” says Bruce Schneier, a digital security expert who explored the concept of social trust in his book, “Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs To Thrive.” “The reason these escalate into violence is because the police do not trust the people they’re stopping. There, I think their trust is misguided. It could be based on racism.”

Police reject this claim. “She’s afraid he could have gun in his pocket. He’s got very loose clothing on,” said Scott Wood, the attorney representing Officer Shelby. “So she draws her gun on him and says, ‘Sir I want you to get down on your knees, get down on your knees.' He refuses that command.”

For many observers, such encounters have been happening for decades, if not longer. “It’s not that the police are more violent or more racist than in the past, it’s just that there are more cameras now, that’s the difference,” says Mr. Schneier. 

Scholars point out that the lack of trust many Americans now feel go back to the 1960s and 1970s, another time of social upheaval and unrest, when the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate helped spur protest movements and widespread cynicism over social institutions.

“And it’s not so much that people were more trustworthy in the past and are less so now,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. “It’s more that we had fewer sources in the past, and fewer methods of verifying information in the past.”

“And today, the changes in our trust of institutions have as much to do with the rise of social media and ubiquitous cell phone and camera technology as it does with the kind of revelations that came from whistle blowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.”

The digital age has also had the paradoxical effect of drowning citizens in information, he says. “The challenge now is for us collectively to make sense of all that information and to figure out which sources are trustworthy and which are not. And that process is an inherently political process.”

Revolutionary moment in media

Schneier believes that during this revolutionary moment in media, technology like digital media could begin to rebuild that kind of trust.

“Any society will fail without trust, but this is usually happens around the edges, not in the main,” he says. “We still trust money, the government, contracts, each other, the products we buy.”

“There is a fundamental mistrust for certain institutions, and for good reasons,” Schneier continues. “But I’m not sure that things are any different, but they’re just more public.”

And as many police departments begin to adopt the use of technology such as body cameras, such evidence, despite their limitations could make a difference.

“The advent of video presents a perceptual reality that transcends the kind of he-said-she-said-they-said arguments,” says Reid. “And in some ways, this can provide a common framing of events, so that, maybe in the long term, these different ways of viewing the world will converge a little bit.”

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