Video a witness to history

Evidently — an advisable use of the word — the testimony of police, plaintiffs or witnesses to a crime are not the gold standard of proof in a court case, not like they used to be. Human memory, even that of trained observers, can be made suspect. So if you can’t get DNA proof of the facts like they do on TV, you’d better scan for a video on YouTube.

Evidently — an advisable use of the word — the testimony of police, plaintiffs or witnesses to a crime are not the gold standard of proof in a court case, not like they used to be. Human memory, even that of trained observers, can be made suspect. So if you can’t get DNA proof of the facts like they do on TV, you’d better scan for a video on YouTube.

Paul Kennedy is chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. Last week, his 208-page report into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver Airport in 2007 considered the written and oral reports of police officers, and their superiors, medical officers and others. But the testimony that settled the investigation for him was a low-resolution video, shot by a bystander with a cellphone.

Chances are pretty good that without the video, any eyewitness account of what happened in the confrontation between an exhausted, frustrated traveller and the police who came to settle him down, would have carried far less weight.

The eyewitness account would have placed the word of one bystander against that of professionals trained in giving court testimony. “Could you have been confused at that moment?” “Are you sure that’s what you saw?” “Aren’t you just relating a memory you only think you have?”

But the video nailed it and Kennedy essentially rejected the sworn testimony of four police members on the basis of seeing this video — just like millions of others who saw it.

He called the incident “a defining moment in the history of the RCMP,” notwithstanding that a person died and that it appears the RCMP attempted to cover up or alter at least some of the facts of how he died.

But what will “define” the event for Canadians is that there is a new level of witness to call upon. One whose testimony cannot be sworn and which is plainly visible to anyone in the world, never mind the courts.

There are numerous videos on the Internet that show crimes being committed — some of them by police — in Canada and the U.S., where you can see in the background the outstretched hands of bystanders holding cellphones, all collecting undeniable, irrefutable evidence of the event. People looting stores, fighting with each other or police, or being beaten or tasered into insensibility — there are no secrets in a world connected by cellphone video.

The practice reaches ludicrous extremes in lesser events. Try to recall TV news coverage of royalty or other celebrities interacting with people; what did you see? People staring intently into their cellphone screens, with the real thing right in front of them.

The Queen could walk right past and the only memory many people would have of the event would be the colour of their cellphone blocking the view.

It’s like nothing is real unless you see it on a screen.

Science fiction writers predicted years ago that society would have millions of electronic observers floating around us and that no event would ever occur that could not be recalled. Human memory would be discounted, the only memories that mattered would be that of the digital observers.

In some ways, that era is upon us. And in cases like the “defining moment” of the death of Robert Dziekanski, it is totally public.

Paul Kennedy has been chairman of his commission for four years. Now that his report condemning the lack of training and sensitivity of the RCMP is out, he will soon be out of a job. The federal government decided not to renew his contract when it runs out next month.

But far from losing a public watchdog, we have gained millions of others. Actually, Kennedy’s report was two years late.

We’ve already seen what the police did in that airport.

What we saw was a defining moment.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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