On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a black motorist, was beaten up by police officers in Los Angeles, and it was only thanks to the presence of mind of a passerby filming the scene that the officers ended up in court. .
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He survives, but a year later, the acquittal of the defendants sets the Californian city ablaze, and riots leave dozens dead and a billion dollars in property damage.
On Friday, America was again faced with the shock of the publication of a video of police violence. It shows the beating of young African-American Tire Nichols by five black police officers in early January in Memphis.
He died three days later.
This time, the agents were quickly dismissed and charged, before the images of the drama were revealed, unlike Rodney King.
The arrest of Rodney King in 1991.
In both cases, it was thanks to the existence of visual evidence that this violence was mediated, underlines Jack Glaser, researcher at the University of California at Berkeley and specialist in racial prejudice in the field of law enforcement. .
“Before Rodney King, not many people had cameras, and it was the fact that someone had one, and was able to film this, that gave it nationwide exposure,” he says. at AFP.
This visibility has exploded with the generalization of smartphones and pedestrian cameras imposed on the police, he underlines.
In the absence of these images, it is difficult to hold accountable the agents concerned by this violence. “Without that, there is often a lot of obstruction and mobilization of police unions to protect jobs,” continues Jack Glaser.
It is moreover the existence of this evidence which prompted the Memphis authorities to crack down relatively quickly against the offending police officers, estimates Patrick Oliver, a former commissioner from Cleveland (Ohio, north) now at the head of the criminal justice program at Cedarville University.
Such speed is “extremely rare,” he told AFP.
For him, this indicates that “the Memphis police consider that they have sufficient evidence to justify their administrative sanctions”.
The decision to publish the images so quickly is strategic, says Patrick Oliver.
“People who are rightly outraged will know that the police have acted against these five officers, and that the prosecutor has already initiated criminal proceedings.”
For Rodney King’s daughter, Lora Dene King, the death of Tire Nichols is part of a long line of police violence, from his father in 1991 to George Floyd, killed in 2020 by a white police officer.
“It will just be another hashtag and we will go on with our lives, before it happens again,” she fumed on NBC television.
For Jack Glaser, society is realizing that police violence affects black men disproportionately, and the police hierarchy realizes that the actions of their officers will be scrutinized.
Headline-grabbing dramas like the death of Tire Nichols, however, are only “the tip of the iceberg”, visible only because of the degree of violence and their documentation in pictures, he believes.
“But there are many, many more instances of excessive, albeit non-lethal, use of force.”
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