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Bystander livestreams during Charlotte standoff show an ever-growing appetite for social media video

ERIK VERDUZCO and LEAH WILLINGHAM
May 04, 2024

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Saing Chhoeun was locked out of his Charlotte, North Carolina, home on Monday as law enforcement with high-powered rifles descended into his yard and garage, using a car as a shield as they were met with a shower of gunfire from the direction of his neighbor's house.

As bullets flew just feet away, Chhoeun took out his phone and started live-streaming the standoff between officials and a man wanted for possession of a firearm by an ex-felon and fleeing to elude.

By the end of the ordeal, five people including four officers and the shooter were dead and more injured in the deadliest single-day incident for U.S. law enforcement since 2016.

The deadly shootout also illustrated how smartphone-wielding bystanders don't always run for cover when bullets start to fly. Increasingly, they look to livestream their perspective of the attack. Experts say the reaction reflects the new role that bystanders play in the age of smartphones.

"It's become sort of a social norm," said Karen North, a digital social media professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg.

Humans always have had trouble defining the responsibilities of a bystander in a crisis situation, North said. It's not always safe to intervene, as with the situation in Charlotte, and people can feel helpless when they're doing nothing. Social media has provided a third option.

The "new responsibility of the bystander" in the digital era is to take a record of what happened on their phones, she said.

"It used to be, 'If you see something, say something,'" North said. "Now, it's, 'If you see something, start recording.'"

Chhoeun had been about to leave for work when U.S. marshals blocked his driveway and he was forced to huddle for safety in his garage, his keys in the ignition of his truck. He crouched by the door knocking for his son to let him in with one hand and recording with the other.

Chhoeun said he never would have risked his life to shoot a video if he hadn't been locked outside. But since he was, he thought: "I might just live it, you know, get everybody the world to see also that I've witnessed that. I didn't see that coming."

Rissa Reign, a youth coordinator who lives in the neighborhood, said she was cleaning her house when she heard gunfire and walked out to find out what was happening.

She began recording when she heard sirens, thinking she would share the video to Charlit, a Facebook group with 62,000 members where residents post about news and events. She had no idea how serious the situation had become until a SWAT vehicle pulled up behind her.

"Once we were out there, it was, 'Oh, no. This is an active situation,'" she said. "And the next thing you know, you're in the middle of something way bigger than what you thought."

Reign saw livestreaming as a way to keep the community informed, she said.

"Seeing that really puts things in perspective and lets you know that is really real, not just reading it or hearing about it in the news," she said of the live stream video. "When you really see it, you can, you know, you know that it's real."

Mary Angela Bock, a media professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said there are many reasons why someone might pull out their phone in a situation like the one in Charlotte. There are always going to be people who try to shoot videos because of a human attraction to violence or to catch someone in an embarrassing situation.

"There are also good reasons for good people to respectfully, from a safe distance, record police activity, or any kind of government activity for the sake of citizenship: to bear witness on behalf of other citizens, to bear witness on behalf of the community," she said. "We're all in this together."

Bock, who studies people who film law enforcement, said police leaders often will say to her that they support the idea of respectfully distanced citizen video because it creates more evidence. But that is sometimes easier said than done on the ground during a crisis situation.

"Police officers will often talk about how, and this is true, video doesn't always show the whole story. Video has to start and stop. Somebody might not have been there in the beginning, somebody might not see the whole thing. One perspective is not the whole perspective," she said.

"Which is why I advocate to people to respectfully record from a distance because the more perspectives, the better when we triangulate. When we have more than one view of a scene, we have a better idea of what happened," Bock said.

Numerous federal appeals courts have affirmed the right to record police work in public.

Stephen Dubovsky, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said for someone in that situation, connecting with others through livestreaming might give them a sense of safety.

"You go out there and you might be at risk, but you're looking at it through your phone," he said. "You're looking at it through the video, you're one step detached from it."

In Chhoeun's video, two agents can be seen sheltering behind a vehicle. Another agent is shown by a fence in his yard, dropping to the ground as what appear to be bullets spray the area around him.

"It was so, so sad for law enforcement," he said. "I know they are not choosing to die on my backyard, but just do their job. And that's what happened to them, left their family behind."

___

Willingham reported from Charleston, West Virginia.

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