Cellphones have created a disturbing array of videos reflecting violent police behavior

(NYT) - In California, an officer sitting in a police car in Vallejo shot and killed a 22-year-old man who was on his knees with his hands up. Only later did the police discover that the man, who was suspected of trying to loot a Walgreens, had a hammer in his sweatshirt pocket, not a gun.

Cellphones have created a disturbing array of videos reflecting violent police behavior

In Texas, a 20-year-old protester shot in the head by police officers in Austin aiming at someone else with nonlethal beanbag ammunition has been left with brain damage and a fractured skull.

Cellphone videos show New York City police officers beating unarmed protesters and sideswiping demonstrators with opened squad car doors. Others around the country show the police indiscriminately using pepper spray on protesters or pedestrians. In Atlanta, a half-dozen officers have been criminally charged after a violent attack on two college students sitting in a car during protests. On live television, police officers in Louisville, Ky., fired pepper-spray balls at journalists.

A protest movement that was ignited by a horrific video of police violence — a white police officer pressing his knee against the neck of George Floyd, a black man, for nearly nine minutes — has now prompted hundreds of other episodes and videos documenting cases of violent police tactics.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Miami Herald reporters filmed officers who were shooting a nonviolent protester in the head with foam rubber bullets, fracturing her eye socket and leaving her screaming and bloody. In Kansas City, Mo., the police walked onto a sidewalk to use pepper spray on protesters yelling at them.

In Buffalo, a video from WBFO, the local National Public Radio station, on Thursday showed police officers in riot gear shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground and walking away as he lay unconscious on the sidewalk, blood coming out of his ear.

A compilation of videotaped incidents posted on Twitter by a North Carolina lawyer stood at 281 clips by Thursday evening.

The episodes have occurred in cities large and small, in the heat of mass protests and in their quiet aftermath. Some have occurred when the police confronted people who were suspected of looting. Experts on policing said that the videos showed, in many cases, examples of abrupt escalation on the part of law enforcement that was difficult to justify.

“It feels like the police are being challenged in ways that they haven’t been challenged in some time,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “They are responding. And sometimes, that response is totally inappropriate.”

Ed Obayashi, a California-based expert on the use of force by law enforcement, said the incidents, while often disturbing, were an overall improvement on past police conduct during episodes of unrest.

A lawyer who advises the California Association of Police Training Officers on use of force, Mr. Obayashi said that, considering the level of chaos across the nation, “from my standpoint, there’s been considerable restraint.”

The Los Angeles riots in 1992, he said, left more than 50 people dead and more than 1,000 injured just in that city. These protests have been national, involving thousands of officers and demonstrators in scores of cities, with far fewer deaths or injuries to civilians, and several have resulted in arrests, firings or internal investigations of officers.

“I’m seeing, consistently, a command-and-control system in place in many of these police departments and much better training,” he said. “In years past, you’d have officers going this way and that way with no organization. It was just everyone for himself and ‘Who can I catch?’”

Those improvements, however, have not necessarily changed the culture of rank-and-file law enforcement, said John Burris, a longtime civil rights lawyer in Oakland, Calif., who in 1994 helped represent Rodney King against the Los Angeles Police Department.