The University of Newcastle, Australia

Criminology expert in police accountability comments on George Floyd case

Thursday, 4 June 2020

The tragic death of George Floyd on 25 May has once again emphasised the significance of bystander video distributed through social media as a police accountability mechanism, says University of Newcastle Criminologist, Dr Justin Ellis.

Image credit: New York Times

Dr Justin Ellis studies the impact of digital media technology on crime and criminalisation and how it affects police accountability in cases of police excessive force.

In Dr Ellis’s most recent article into police accountability, drawing on interviews with police and non-police stakeholders, Dr Ellis says the police themselves are fully aware of the implications of how things can look on amateur video on social media, and brief officers about it. But that the police are also having to juggle a whole range of complexities, with safety the first priority.

“Digital technology is an amazing tool of scrutiny, and police are now subject to ‘the social media test’ - how your actions are going to look in a YouTube video or in other social media. Social media has a central and ongoing role to play in providing public institutions with candid assessments of their performance. We see this continuing to play out in Australia with video from 1 June of a case of alleged police assault against an Indigenous teenager in Sydney.”

“The George Floyd case has also emphasised the implications for bystanders. Darnella Frazier, who posted the video of Floyd’s arrest on Facebook, is now being harassed online for not doing more,” he said.

“Many people do not know that non-obstructionist filming of police operations in public is lawful, or the fortitude it takes to do it. And that the police rely on it too.”

“Given that civilian experience of police complaints handling processes and police internal investigations often leave victims ambivalent about their experience with police, bystander video is a crucial aspect of getting closer to the structural change that many of the responses to the death of George Floyd across the world, including Australia, have demanded.”

“Outraged responses from Australia about the death of George Floyd have been challenged with accusations of colour blindness, ignorance and denial,” Ellis said. “Numbers of black deaths in custody in Australia have been recited. As the findings from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody noted, the underlying problem of the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody is a consequence of the disproportionate number of Aboriginal Australians in custody, which is in direct relation to law enforcement priorities and practices. George Floyd is alleged to have presented a counterfeit banknote. Many Indigenous Australians are incarcerated for ‘minor’ public order offences, such as offensive language, that belie their disproportionate impact on Indigenous Australians. Culpability does not deny responsibility. Nor should it be a death sentence.”

“As we have seen in the US from the range of responses from police forces, much of this problem is cultural and comes down to charismatic leadership. Given civil actions police settle with civilians are subject to non-disclosure agreements, bystander video is a crucial, visible way of exposing the necessity for change. Acknowledgment of the problem(s) is a first and very important step,” Dr Ellis concluded.


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