The United Airlines Incident (And The News Coverage That Followed) Is Further Proof Of Citizen Journalism's Power

Cameras keep forcing law enforcement into doing a better job.

The United Airlines passenger who in videos appeared to be roughly thrown to the ground and dragged off his flight may not have made national news if not for one key element: his fellow passengers whipping out their camera phones to document the scene.

Citizens aboard the United Airlines flight immediately began filming when Department of Aviation security officers boarded the plane, and many of their videos quickly made headlines. It's yet another example of the power of filming tense interactions with law enforcement.

Even with the cameras rolling, accounts of the event still varied wildly. While most Americans were shocked at the way the passenger was handled, the Chicago Police Department — despite its officers not being involved — prompted further concern when it released a bewildering statement, claiming officers "attempted to carry the individual off the flight when he fell."

When United CEO Oscar Muñoz first spoke out about the event, he described the passenger — a 66-year-old doctor who was trying to get back to his patients — as being "re-accommodated."

But the footage seemed to tell a different story. Quickly, several angles of the incident went viral on Twitter and Facebook. Before the night was over, the footage was being broadcast on every major news channel, and both the Chicago Police Department and United were criticized for their response. 

Of course, this incident brings to light an even larger conversation: what happens when the cameras aren't rolling? What happens when it's a police officer's word against a citizen's? What will spokespeople or law enforcement or major corporations say to cover up an incident when the outcome is more serious, like someone's death?

Just a few weeks ago, police in North Carolina tried to tell an Uber driver, who was also a lawyer, that a new law meant he couldn't film the cops. This, of course, wasn't the case, and he kept documenting his exchange — documentation that, had the incident escalated, been crucial.

After Philando Castile was shot during a traffic stop, Diamond Reynolds went live on Facebook and filmed the police standing over her dying boyfriend. Reynolds' composure in the situation helped show evidence of a panicked police officer, and gave her an opportunity to immediately tell the story of what just happened before the press — or the police — misconstrued events. 

It's important to know your rights, too. As long as you're not interfering in an investigation or crime scene, you are free to film the police on the job. They can't tell you to stop and they can't destroy any film you take. Of course, the frequency of filming police is only increasing, and it's gone well beyond just cell phones. In New York City, the entire NYPD will be equipped with body cameras on their uniforms by the end of 2019.

If you don't think there is power in the camera, look no further than United. After an initial response that was seen as callous by many, United's CEO released a second statement with an apology and a pledge to review their policies.

On top of the apology, the videos also forced decisive action from the Department of Aviation.

"That officer has been placed on leave effective today pending a thorough review of the situation," Aviation Department spokeswoman Karen Pride said.

Cover image via Shutterstock / Greg K__ca / Shutterstock.com.

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