Brian Patrick Green, is the director of the Technology Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
I remember years ago when one of my friends first got a cell phone with a camera on it. “What’s the point of that?” I asked. He replied reluctantly: “Eh, maybe you want to take a picture sometimes and you don’t have a camera.” Then he conceded, “Yeah, it’s a bit of a solution looking for a problem.” Back then, my friend and I didn’t yet know what problems cell phone cameras—and video in particular—could solve. Now, with videos of the killing of George Floyd and numerous other examples of police brutality all over the news, we can imagine more about what problem cell phone video cameras might contribute to solving.
I am certainly not the first to have noticed the role of video in exposing police brutality. When Rodney King was beaten by fourteen LAPD officers in 1991, it was the video that made it international news. If there had been no video, there would have been no news—Rodney King’s side of the story would likely have been ignored, like so many others have been ignored before.
Now, with the proliferation of smart phones and concomitant proliferation of videos of police brutality and killings, the stories can no longer be ignored. Injustices have become harder to hide; they are now too obvious to ignore. Again and again, over the years, videos have revealed the truth that had been shouted many times before but not believed: Oscar Grant in 2009, Eric Garner in 2014, Walter Scott in 2015, Philando Castile in 2016, Stephon Clark in 2018, George Floyd in 2020, and many more—on and on … Those are just a few of the more infamous cases captured on video, to say nothing of the many more killed off-camera, or who were not killed, but severely injured or traumatized.
In Donald Glover’s 2018 landmark music video “This Is America” , at minute 2:25, he states, “This is a celly / That’s a tool”—a line with a double meaning, one of which is that cell phones have helped to make indisputable the facts of police brutality in America . Cell phone video is now a vital part of the public’s tools to monitor the police.
There are innumerable connections to ethics here, and the issues would fill thousands of books, so here I will focus on just three: 1) recognizing that there is an ethical problem, 2) getting the facts, and 3) what here is specifically technology ethics. The first two happen to be the first steps of the Ethics Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making , while the third is relevant to our technologically dynamic future.
In any ethical deliberation, the very first step is to recognize that there is a problem. For too long, Black Americans knew that there was a problem with police brutality in the United States, while White Americans did not. Some of White America’s ignorance was undoubtedly unintentional, the simple obliviousness of white privilege. But some of that ignorance was intentional, making it a form of culpable ignorance: ignorance that does not remove moral responsibility. Culpable ignorance means turning the other way when you should recognize something (change the channel, turn the page, look away), or rationalizing it away when that rationalization is unreasonable (“they must have deserved it”). However, rationalizing away the video of the asphyxiation of a man—George Floyd—after nearly 9 minutes under three police officers, including one on the man’s neck, is nearly impossible. He didn’t deserve it. And we should not look away. Recognize the problem.
After this recognition, the next step is to get the facts. The facts of racially biased police brutality have been there, but previously were too easily dismissed by those in power. For decades Black Americans have told of police brutality and been ignored. Those who gave witness were told they lacked evidence, and even if they had evidence, or a crowd of witnesses, they were dismissed: their own testimony not being enough. But video technology has now made those easy dismissals much less likely. While some might still cover their eyes and ears, or actually not be bothered by police brutality directed at minorities, any reasonable person now has no alternative to admitting that there is a serious problem in America, and the police have been one major part of that problem for too long. The facts are in. And technology enabled the collection of those facts.
Lastly, ethically speaking, of what importance is technology in this case? There are several points worth raising, I think.
First, for decades, centuries, Black Americans had been silenced because their testimony contradicted the dominant narrative. Cell phone video ended that form of silencing. Cell phone video has not cured the court system or police departments, but it has done one major thing which is to show the fact of police-perpetuated racial injustice in the form of institutionalized brutality and murder. The facts can no longer be ignored: everyone in the world can see it. Thanks to technology, objective fact has overcome bias, at least in this once instance, for now.
Second, side effects of technologies can be extremely unpredictable and extremely potent in their consequences. Few might have predicted years ago that giving smart phones video-taking capacity would result in the situation in which we find ourselves today. Looking back, the causation is crystal clear, but looking forward from the past, there was little or nothing to be seen at all. Powerful technologies have powerful side effects.
Third, there are new technologies coming that are even more powerful than cell phone video. If cell phones with video made unequivocal the facts of police brutality, AI and machine learning offer us the next steps in finding discrimination in the police and judicial system. Biased policing strategies , departments, and judges will be discovered, and this will give us the opportunity for reforming those institutions as well .
Simply exposing police brutality will not make it go away and America’s brutal racism has been documented in videos for decades (and in photos for well over 100 years), and yet the problem still remains . We see the problem, we have many facts, but to solve police brutality—which we must do in order to become a morally better nation—requires action. Laws need to be passed, and institutions radically reformed and rebuilt.
Because of one now ubiquitous technology, the problem of police brutality is clear; the next problem is one of societal and political will. Do enough Americans actually want to solve this problem? That is the question that cell phone video has led us to now ask, and it is one which, in turn, asks each American to search their own soul for an answer.
Donald Glover, “This Is America,” YouTube, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY
 Ben Beaumont-Thomas,“This is America: theories behind Childish Gambino's satirical masterpiece,” The Guardian, 9 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/07/this-is-america-theories-donald-glover-satirical-video-childish-gambino
Manuel Velasquez, Dennis Moberg, Michael J. Meyer, Thomas Shanks, Margaret R. McLean, David DeCosse, Claire André, and Kirk O. Hanson,“A Framework for Ethical Decision Making,”Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website,last revised May 2009, online update Aug 1, 2015. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/a-framework-for-ethical-decision-making/
 Ben Poston and Cindy Chang,“LAPD searches blacks and Latinos more. But they’re less likely to have contraband than whites,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-lapd-searches-20190605-story.html
 Angela Chen,“How artificial intelligence can help us make judges less biased,” The Verge, Jan 17, 2019. https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/17/18186674/daniel-chen-machine-learning-rule-of-law-economics-psychology-judicial-system-policy
 Kevin Shird, “Cell Phone Videos Won't Save Us From Police Violence,” Colorlines, Jun 1, 2020. https://www.colorlines.com/articles/cell-phone-videos-wont-save-us-police-violence-op-ed