What Is There to Say About This Austin Police Video?
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There’s an old adage in journalism that you’ve probably heard: a dog bites a man, that’s not a story. A man bites a dog, that’s a story.
You have to keep this in mind when covering the great state of Texas. A lot of noteworthy things happen—noteworthy except for the fact that we see them a lot. And that makes the question of whether we cover the video below, of an incident on Sixth Street that happened over the weekend between Austin police officers and the citizens they’re sworn to protect and serve, a tough call from a news perspective. Take a look.
It opens with a bunch of APD officers cuffing a man in a prone position—a legitimate part of police activities—and continues as multiple officers seek to establish a perimeter on the street, keeping bystanders on the sidewalk. That’s also legit. But as the video continues, mounted police begin riding into the people who are off to the side, as the observers film their actions on their cellphones. And then one mounted officer who has apparently had enough of it grabs the phone from the hand of one man and rides away with it. As the man gestures to the officer and reaches out in her direction, another officer lets loose a steady two-second stream of pepper spray in his face.
The officer taking the man’s cellphone seems to be violating his rights—it’s not illegal to film police, and if he is within an unclear perimeter, the proper way to handle that probably isn’t to steal his phone. The officer who then sprays him in the face might see the guy as a threat to his fellow officer—who knows how far he’ll go to retrieve his property?—but it’d be hard to argue from the encounter that he’s guilty of anything more serious than pissing off a cop who was tired of being filmed. And, again, that’s not actually a crime. (In fact, the Texas Legislature considered a bill earlier this year that would have made it illegal to film a police officer from less than 25 feet away, but decided against it.)
The officers’ actions are under review from the department, but there’s not much of an argument that the APD behaved appropriately on Saturday night.
But how many stories about police abusing their authority, or viewing citizens as enemies, do we have an appetite for? How many videos of police behaving poorly must we see before it’s just another dog biting a man?
One has to ask these questions in the wake of what happened in McKinney over the weekend. That story became an international headline (here, go read about it in French) and subsequently attracted hundreds, from around Texas and the U.S., to march in protest.
On another weekend, what happened on Sixth Street in Austin might have been a bigger story—there’s clear-cut video of a police officer stealing a guy’s phone and then another officer pepper-spraying him for it—but it’s also hard to justify the idea that this sort of thing deserves less attention simply because it happened the same weekend that police in another city did something even more egregious.
This steady stream of stories can reduce our faith in authority to Arya Stark–level lows. But at the same time, it seems like the best way for trust to be restored in this institution isn’t through journalists refraining from reporting every time the police abused their authority; the best way would be for the police to stop abusing it.