Can Video Change Hearts and Minds?

A student-led study of the Eric Garner case explores the power video can have on public opinion around judicial response to police conduct

November 15, 2016

In late 2014, Eric Garner died while being arrested by a police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in Staten Island. A video of the arrest went viral—it showed Garner being held in a choke-hold and very clearly and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” Eventually, a grand jury decided against indicting Officer Pantaleo. Around the country, and on the Mailman School campus, people were left wondering why it happened and how to ensure that justice is done when people die at the hands of police.

In the Epidemiological Methods for Measuring Human Rights Abuses class taught by Les Roberts, professor of Population and Family Health, students proposed the Eric Garner case as their class project. They wanted to discover: what impact did the video of Garner’s arrest have on public opinion? In Spring 2015, they created the survey questions, developed the protocols, selected the sample population, and designed psychological support training for the questioners. Unfortunately, IRB approval came too late—they passed the project down for the next class, in Spring 2016, to implement, analyze, and publish results.

Door to Door

Students—many of whom were implementing a survey for the first time—quickly discovered just how difficult it can be to find people willing to participate in surveys of this type. As Jamie Hamilton, MPH ’17, recalled, they began outreach on the phone and realized that the survey would have to be done in person due to lack of response. Fanning out in teams across the state, students knocked on more than 1500 doors and found 119 respondents.

“Once we found people willing to talk, they were so hospitable, even given how charged the issues of race and police brutality are,” says Hamilton, who did his interviews in Suffolk County. “We were able to have very polite, reasonable conversations with people who held a lot of differing opinions. Sometimes it’s about being able to connect and talk directly with a citizen.”

At kitchen tables, on stoops, and in living rooms, students told citizens from a variety of backgrounds, religions, races, and political leanings about the legal issues and hurdles surrounding cases of police brutality: how it’s up to the discretion of District Attorneys to bring charges against city employees, how in grand jury trials those charges may not be public knowledge, and how New York Governor Cuomo wants permanent authority to appoint impartial special prosecutors in these cases. Students asked survey respondents about what they thought of the Eric Garner case, and if they thought that the officers involved in his arrest should have gone to trial. Then, they handed over their smartphones and showed the full 51-second video recorded by a bystander, and asked the same question again. 

Bearing Witness

The study findings show the immense power that video, especially one with audio, can have. While the vast majority of respondents said they had previously seen the video of Eric Garner’s arrest on the news or via social media, the surveyors still found that viewing it in full could change minds and bridge the divide in opinion between races: before watching, African-Americans interviewed were twice as likely as whites to believe the officers involved in Garner’s death should have gone to trial. After watching the video, this difference changed to 1.2 times more likely—lower by 80 percent.

For Sara Snyder, MPH ’16 and the study’s lead author, these interactions showed not only how audio and visuals can impact opinion, but how important it is to have real conversations with people—and not just one-way conversations on social media.

“It’s easier to talk to a machine than another person, but you have more genuine interactions when you can talk with people directly,” says Snyder. “We put a lot out there through media and technology, and we have protests. That’s important, but it’s less of a dialogue—it’s yelling or telling, as opposed to people sitting together, talking, sharing a story, being part of the community. Talking face-to-face really opens up the issues in a way that’s not limited by 140 characters.”

Policy Relevant

The study, which was published last month in the Journal of Social Service Research, is open access, and the authors hope that it can serve as a useful tool for advocacy and policy-making. They have shared the paper with legislators in Albany, leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the media. “It was really gratifying to dig deep into an issue that’s so important and tie it to relevant, valid data to better understand and affect the problem—that’s the promise of public health,” says Jamie Hamilton, who helped to write the background for the publication.

Their class may be over, but many on the student research team aren’t done studying this subject. After a summer filled with more incidents of police shootings, they’re carrying forward their work to look at the impact of releases of video in officer-involved shootings. Roberts, Snyder, and others are currently assessing information from public databases to explore the types of video footage available, when they were released to the public, and if violence occurred before or after the video releases.

Class projects that focus on human interaction and human rights abuses are a cornerstone of Roberts’ teaching approach—in 2007, at the height of the Iraq War, students found and interviewed people in Iraq to gather first-hand information about the violence around them. According to Roberts, “Doing these projects allows students to take what they’re learning in their quantitative classes and understand what a messy, messy world it is, and how we can come up with strategies to deal with that messiness.”