Stock image of person videoing with their iphone in a night time setting. Image: Unsplash.

Amateur video evidence vital to holding police to account

21 February 2019
Six years after amateur video footage surfaced on YouTube allegedly showing police excessive force at the 2013 Mardi Gras, new University of Sydney research shows the important but unpredictable role that amateur video can play in holding police to account.

Research by Dr Justin Ellis, who has undertaken his PhD at the University of Sydney Law School and is a researcher at the Sydney Institute of Criminology, found social media has a central and ongoing role to play in providing public institutions with candid assessments of their performance, and as a community organising tool.  

Dr Ellis used the public interest cases that arose from the policing of the 2013 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival – and police and non-police reactions to them – to examine the ongoing impact of social media on police accountability and police-public community relations.

“The video of alleged police excessive force at the 2013 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade was one of the first viral videos of its kind in Australia to reach a global audience through sharing on social media. It also resulted in an unprecedented memorandum of understanding between the NSW Police and Mardi Gras about how Mardi Gras is policed,” he said.

The video (please note the age restriction) is available to view on YouTube here.

Dr Ellis conducted in-depth interviews with NSW police and former police employees and Sydney LGBTIQ+ community respondents most closely affected by the video, and analysed media coverage of the cases.

“Social media can be a very practical tool to pressure public officials to account and participate in public discourse on accountability,” he said. 

“The incident at the 2013 Mardi Gras parade showed that the general public’s responses to what they perceive to be incidents of police misconduct can provide the police with a very frank assessment of the acceptable limits to the public of police use of force. It also provides police with an opportunity to respond commensurately to calls for reassurance, transparency and accountability.

“How the police respond at these critical times is critical to sustaining the trust of communities – and particularly those communities that have been historically over and under policed.”

Dr Ellis’s research underscored the issues around filming police-public interactions – even when people know their rights.

“It is often very difficult – as the 2013 Mardi Gras video shows – to continue filming after repeated police requests to stop, but it is legal for people to film police duties in public spaces, except under certain limited circumstances, just as long as they are not obstructing a police operation,” he said.

Dr Ellis said the policing of the 2013 Mardi Gras Festival was just one example of a modern case highlighting the complexities of 21st century policing.

“In an era when social relations are increasingly mediated through digital communications, it is vitally important that policymakers and public officials consider contemporary legal and ethical solutions to contemporary crime problems,” he said.

“One of those considerations is the increased transparency and accountability that the public expect through their use of social media.”

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