Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Carolyn DeLaurentis nursed a tall boy of Rockstar as she prepared to confront a problem too big for an energy drink to solve. In her closing argument, she would have to convince a jury that 31-year-old Askia Sabur assaulted Police Officer Donyule Williams on Sept. 3, 2010. But in her way was a devastating obstacle: a graphic, two-minute-and-29-second video showing Williams’ partner, Officer Jimmy Leocal, repeatedly beating Sabur about his head and body as he writhed on a West Philly sidewalk. It has been viewed nearly 150,000 times on YouTube.
“We are not asking you today to agree with everything you saw on that video,” DeLaurentis told the jury. “Don’t get distracted,” she implored them.
It was a lot to ask. After all, Sabur appeared to have been beaten severely and was left with a fractured arm and deep head wounds that would require six staples to close. Yet he had been charged with aggravated assault, disarming a law-enforcement officer, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and resisting arrest.
In the end, the jury deliberated for less than one hour on Feb. 19, concluding so quickly they had to wait for defense attorney Larry Krasner to rush back from lunch. It was a good sign: Sabur was acquitted on all counts. It was the second-fastest verdict of Krasner’s career.
It was also, Krasner says, a sign of a sea change in Philly neighborhoods, where abuse at the hands of police is often considered a regular fact of life and the idea that justice will prevail is not the general assumption.
“Next to DNA, the democratization of gathering of evidence by means of the universal camera … the cell phone … is an enormous development in terms of the potential for real justice,” Krasner tells City Paper.
Cameraphone videos and photos have in recent years transformed the capacity for civilian oversight of law enforcement, from overthrown Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek’s attack on demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to campus police’s nonchalant pepper-spraying of Occupy Wall Street protesters at the University of California, Davis. Material produced by citizen journalists has become a staple of mainstream reporting, and has even created iconic pop-culture moments like the Davis pepper-spray meme and the 2007 video of a student imploring University of Florida police: “Don’t tase me, bro!” That clip has been viewed a phenomenal 6.7 million times. More than anything, the videos confirm previously denied realities and stoke outrage. In 2009, cameraphones captured transit officer Johannes Mehserle shooting Oscar Grant to death on an Oakland subway platform. Riots broke out after Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but acquitted of second-degree murder.
And here in Philadelphia, such videos seem to be emerging at an accelerating rate. Indeed, less than a week before Sabur’s trial concluded, District Attorney Seth Williams’ office rested another case of alleged police brutality gone viral on YouTube. This time, however, the DA made the rare decision to actually prosecute the cop, Lt. Jonathan Josey, who was seen punching Aida Guzman in the face at a Fairhill street party following last September’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. The video was uploaded a day later and viewed more than 200,000 times. Within a week, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey announced Josey’s firing and the DA dropped disorderly conduct charges against Guzman. Mayor Michael Nutter, who has long resisted reforming Police Department disciplinary processes, said he was “horrified.” But Municipal Court Judge Patrick Dugan, who happens to be married to a Philly cop, ultimately acquitted Josey.
National Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco has warned USA Today that “the proliferation of cheap video equipment … has had a chilling effect on some officers, who are now afraid to act for fear of retribution by video.” It’s unclear if this is the case, since officers continue to commit abuses in public view. Indeed, police in Philly and elsewhere have been known to arrest citizen videographers and destroy cameras. And they still make allegations against brutality victims that are sometimes flatly contradicted by what’s caught on camera.
“Now, the story that might never have surfaced if someone hadn’t picked up his home video camera.” It was 1991, and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings was talking about what would become one of the decade’s biggest stories: Rodney King.
On March 3, a white man named George Holliday heard sirens and stepped out on his apartment balcony, where he saw a group of Los Angeles police officers beating King, who was hit more than 50 times after leading police on a high-speed chase. Doctors were surprised he survived. The next day, Holliday delivered a tape of the incident, made on his Sony Handycam, to local television station KTLA, which played it on that evening’s news. On March 5, CNN aired it for a national audience. It’s since been called the first viral video.
“This is history,” King’s attorney, Milton Grimes, later told CNN. “We finally caught the Loch Ness monster with a camcorder.”
Citing the video’s intensive media coverage, a judge moved the trial to suburban Simi Valley. On April 29, 1992, a jury that included no blacks acquitted three LAPD officers and declared a mistrial after deadlocking on charges against a fourth. The contradiction between verdict and video sparked the Los Angeles riots, which ultimately left 55 people dead. A federal civil-rights suit later secured convictions against two officers and prompted an effort to reform the LA police.
Public outrage had also followed televised recordings of officers turning dogs and high-pressure firehoses against civil-rights demonstrators in 1963 Birmingham, Ala., and the Chicago “police riot” against anti-war protesters in 1968. But the 1983 debut of the Sony Betamovie, the world’s first camcorder, marked something new. By decade’s end, camcorders had become ubiquitous, and Americans were beginning to record every detail of their lives. America’s Funniest Home Videos, which premiered in 1989, was inundated with as many as 2,000 tapes per day. It was only a matter of time before a camcorder-wielding American turned his attention from his living room to the street.
According to Pew, 87 percent of adult Americans own cell phones, and 44 percent of them use phones to record video. The percentage using phones to make video has more than doubled since 2007.
And YouTube and social media have democratized the distribution of video, just as the camcorder and, subsequently, the cameraphone revolutionized their recording. YouTube offers viewers a veritable mixtape of police brutality, including recordings from squad-car-mounted video cameras and fixed security cameras, like the one that captured Fullerton, Calif., police beating a homeless man to death in 2011. The footage can also, of course, help exonerate officers facing false accusations.
“Film doesn’t lie,” says University of California, Los Angeles, law professor Joanna C. Schwartz. “It really levels the playing field in various respects to have this image that cannot be cross-examined.”
But in Philly, the impact of such video on policing has been uneven.
In 2009, the Daily News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Tainted Justice” found evidence that a rogue narcotics squad was robbing bodegas; reporters reviewed one store’s surveillance footage showing police attempting to disable a security camera. The officers, some of whom were also accused of sexual assault and fabricating evidence, remain on the force. In 2008, a Fox 29 helicopter videotaped Philadelphia police dragging three shooting suspects from a car and beating them. A grand jury decided against pressing charges, and an arbitrator overturned the firing and discipline of involved officers. The NAACP blamed then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham for sabotaging the prosecution.
And in Sabur’s case, despite what the video shows, the DA declined to charge Leocal or Williams. Instead, they charged Sabur — even though Internal Affairs, which often fails to sustain allegations against officers, found that Leocal had used excessive force. Later, the DA complained that the “video is only a portion of the incident, is inflammatory and is prejudicial,” and successfully requested that anything regarding the “investigation and any potential discipline of Officer Jimmy Leocal” be excluded from Sabur’s trial. Krasner had argued to the contrary: Leocal’s history — five other Internal Affairs excessive-force complaints, including one where his wife accused him of grabbing her by the throat and threatening her life — was pertinent. Leocal’s partner, Williams, also had five such complaints.
Sabur spent the last two years in jail waiting to clear his name. In the meantime, Krasner says the case bounced around a District Attorney’s Office that insisted on trying Sabur but where no prosecutor wanted to take on such a weak case.
The video was uploaded to YouTube two days after his beating, and was followed by protests, extensive media coverage and a City Council hearing on police brutality. But most views, according to YouTube data, came soon after the video was posted. Busy reporters moved on. Sabur is now free and has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the city. The video will no doubt be played again for that trial, if the city doesn’t settle first (the administration, the DA and police would not comment on that case). Philadelphia taxpayers paid nearly $8 million in 2012 to settle claims lodged by alleged victims of police abuse.