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What Should You Do if You Witness Police Brutality?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

As a handcuffed George Floyd gasped for his life while being pressed to the pavement under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, bystanders begged for mercy.

Hundreds of millions of people have seen that video, shot by a bystander, and have heard the concerned and angry voices of those first-hand witnesses who are part of its audio.

"Get off of him now!"

"What is wrong with y'all?"

"What the f—-!"

As Chauvin continued to press his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, fellow officer Tou Thou stands by in an apparent protective stance facing the bystanders.

"Bro, he's not f—-ing moving!" says one bystander when Floyd goes silent, his eyes closed.

Shortly later, Floyd was pronounced dead, and the video went viral.

Exercise Your Rights, But Be Cautious

Certainly one of the questions people have been asking themselves is: What more could the bystanders in Minneapolis have done? And what should I do if I witness something like it?

For starters, legal experts appear to be in agreement that attempting to physically intervene is a bad idea. If you try to do that, you'd almost certainly be arrested for obstructing a police officer, and you might even get killed.

“If you're dealing with a belligerent police officer, that's a dangerous situation — police officers have a lot of power — and you need to make a judgment about the importance of what you're doing, and about the risk you're willing to take, versus your own sense of justice," Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Atlantic.

But it's still important, they say, to hold bad cops — or seemingly bad cops — accountable for their actions.

While all states have laws that criminalize obstruction of police activities, many also have laws that penalize misbehaving cops. California's law, for instance, says that any officer who is guilty of "willful inhumanity or oppression" of a prisoner or person in their custody can be fined $4,000 and removed from their job.

Anyone who wants to file a brutality lawsuit against the police, however, faces a formidable roadblock: a legal doctrine called "qualified immunity." This doctrine, which has been reinforced by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, greatly shields police officers from civil liability for claims of excessive force.

In Minneapolis, at least, the chances of a police officer being disciplined as the result of a citizen complaint have been minuscule, according to Reuters. On June 4, Reuters released a report that included an analysis of how those complaints had fared over the last eight years, finding that 90% of the 3,000 complaints were resolved without punishment or intervention.

So, the odds may be stacked against you if you file a lawsuit or a claim with a police department's internal affairs division.

The Right to Record What You See

But authorities say there are things you can do when you witness brutality.

For starters, you have an absolute right to capture the event with your phone, as 17-year-old Darnella Frazier did in Minneapolis. The act of filming may not stop the action, but as Frazier's video demonstrates, it can lead to dramatic outcomes.

According to the New York Legal Aid Society, “You have a right to record the police as long as you are not interfering with the discharge of their law enforcement duties."

It is important to be cautious and unobtrusive when filming. Keep a distance of at least six feet and comply if the police ask you to move. If they ask you to stop filming, you can remind them that you have a right, but don't be belligerent.

It's also important to know that a police officer cannot confiscate your phone; they need a search warrant to do that.

Maggie Ellinger-Locke, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, told Huff Post that even though a police officer could violate your rights if they demand that you stop filming, "those rights can only be upheld later on after you get to court. In the moment on the street, if you fail to comply with an officer's order — even an unlawful one — you may be subjecting yourself to arrest."

Another option is to call 911. One of the bystanders in Minneapolis can be heard to say, "We need to call the police on the police," and that's what a 911 call would be. It may not work because it may be too long before a response arrives, but misbehaving officers may hear the dispatch call and curb their activity.

Use Good Judgment

You would also be within your power to make a citizen's arrest. But as Denver attorney Charles Feldman recently wrote in the Denver Post, doing so is exceedingly risky.

"Even though the law allows for a citizen to intervene and prevent an on-duty police officer from killing a helpless person," he wrote, "that citizen would almost certainly be arrested for doing so, or worse, potentially killed in the process."

After witnessing police brutality, police departments do provide ways for citizens to register complaints with Internal Affairs divisions. However, as Reuters pointed out with Minneapolis, those complaints may be unlikely to prompt responses. If you do file a complaint, provide as much detail as possible.

As a citizen, you have an obligation to do what you can if you witness police brutality — excessive force is a constitutional violation. But you need to be careful.

Take action. But stay safe.

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