The main character in the story on page 10 of this week’s paper doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t have a face.
Shortly after a video of the brutal arrest of Christopher Gonzalez was posted on Instagram July 8, the Charlottesville Police Department released 17 minutes of body camera footage of the incident. Since arriving two years ago, Police Chief RaShall Brackney has touted transparency—releasing the video, the department implied, would help satisfy the community’s demands.
The police weren’t willing to release the officer’s name, however, as the arrest remains subject to an “ongoing investigation.”
So I wrote the story about “the officer” and Christopher Gonzalez.
This identification imbalance—which the police created and which is felt in the prose—is present in the body camera footage, too. The body camera lets us hear a voice; it lets us see a set of hands as they act. But, to an amazing extent, it leaves the wearer out of the picture.
(Then, of course, the camera falls off at a critical moment—a neat symbolic summation of current police oversight practices as a whole.)
After watching the footage over and over again, I feel like I know Gonzalez. I’d recognize him if I passed him on the Downtown Mall. The same can’t be said for the officer. This is a problem because, again, that man is the pivotal figure in this story. He’s the one who turned this into a newsworthy situation—he’s the one who initiated the violence. The police department, while preaching transparency, has slyly managed to erase him from the narrative.
Charlottesville’s Police Civilian Review Board remains tangled in municipal government purgatory, but this arrest shows how much the community needs strong and vigilant police oversight. A body camera by itself can’t turn and look up at the officer who wears it. As Harold Folley says in the story, “police can’t police themselves.”