Is It Always Right to Stop and Film Police Interactions with IBPOC Folks?

An animated gif of two people holding their phones out, filming something.

One piece of advice out there for people concerned about police brutality is that whenever we see police interacting with a person of colour or someone who might otherwise be vulnerable, to whip out our phones and start filming them. Every time.

I stumbled into learning that, well, it's complicated.

A couple of months ago, in the midst of frequent Black Lives Matter protests in my city, I was biking to work. My route takes me on a public bike path that passes through Reserve land, and that's where I came upon two police officers talking to what looked like a young Indigenous woman.

When you're riding a bike, you don't have a lot of time to make decisions, but here's what passed through my mind:

- The encounter didn't look aggressive.

- If that were to change, there may not be anyone else passing by in the next 5-10 minutes.

- There was no way to stop without being really obvious.

- There are many ways their encounter could go bad.

- Could I live with myself if I found out later that something terrible had happened and I had just ridden past?

I decided to stop.

As I pulled my bike to stop and turned back around, the young woman looked at me and yelled, "Can you NOT LOOK?" It was a zero-to-sixty yell. The kind where you know the person has just been set off and is instantly furious.


I offered an apology and turned to continue on my way while she yelled some more.

I biked away, a bit shaken. I wondered if her heightened anger at seeing me stop would change the tenor of her conversation with the police. I wondered if I had triggered some kind of additional trauma for her. I wondered whether I did the right thing.

Which leads me back to "it's complicated."

The social media advice is to stop, watch, and film when we see police with IBPOC or otherwise vulnerable people. No matter what.

Except that, as I was reminded, people who are interacting with police don't always want to be watched, let alone filmed. They may already feel angry or humiliated or simply want privacy, and having a spotlight turned on them just makes things worse.

Do we take away someone's dignity by turning and staring at an otherwise benign encounter? Or even a stressful, upsetting, or belittling one?

Do people have a right to as much privacy as they can get during these situations?

Is the advice to stop and film really only for encounters that already seem like they are edging into violence? (Except that we know that many seemingly-routine police stops have turned deadly for innocent Black folks, with no warning.)

In the balance of potential harm done, is it worth it to risk adding humiliation if we may be reducing the risk for their death? (Knowing, of course, that we have many murders committed by police on film, and so it may not deter anything and instead add to the archives of injustice.)

Obviously, there's more subtlety to hanging out on a street corner a few metres away from an incident than wrenching your bike around on an otherwise empty street. But (surprise surprise) there is also a little more nuance to consider than the social media posts would lead you to believe.

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