How to record hate crimes on your phone

When Fatima Salman drove out of her subdivision in suburban Detroit one morning in early October to drop her son off to school, it seemed like any other day. It wouldn’t turn out that way.

“A guy was behind me and got annoyed that I pulled out in front of him,” recalled the Executive Director of the Muslim Students’ Association (National). “I was plenty ahead of him and didn't cut him off at all,” she added, but noted that he was driving fast for that road.

“He pulled up closer to me right when I got on the main road and started honking like crazy. When he got closer to my car he noticed my head covering which prompted him to get even more mad. He was screaming, giving me the finger, honking his horn, and in crazy rage.

“We stopped at the red light, cars in front of us, behind us, next to us and he put his window down and started screaming at me again and giving me the finger. He then pretended his hand was a gun and started shooting at me with his hand, all the while screaming and shouting. I didn't look at him,. I just silently looked ahead.”

Hoping to lose him, Salman got off the road and turned into a nearby school’s parking lot. To her horror, the angry driver pulled into the same lot from the other side. In a panic, she called 9/11.

The operator instructed her to drive to the nearest police station at the other side of the street. Officers found her immediately and took down details of the incident. The raging man and his blue pickup truck were nowhere to be found at that point.

Among the suggestions law enforcement gave Salman was to call 911 immediately when in danger and to try to get the license plate number of the perpetrator in future. A third piece of advice was that it’s “not a bad idea to record while the incident is happening” and to “invest in a dash cam”. A dashcam or dashboard camera continuously records the view through a vehicle's windshield. Dashcams may provide video evidence in the event of an accident or an incident.

Recording occurrences of hate, racism, and discrimination is not common, but it can strengthen a legal case by offering solid proof of wrongdoing.

“I can't recall a hate crime case that I either personally prosecuted or saw prosecuted that hinged exclusively on video evidence. That said, video evidence is always strong evidence if it is available,” said Omer Jaleel, a former prosecutor and Assistant State's Attorney in Cook County, IL, who is now in private practice.

Remember, safety is absolutely critical when recording an incident. It is advised not to record if there is any possibility of danger to the victim or those with them.

It’s something “Sameer” (who asked that his real name not be used) advised as well after recording an incident of anti-Muslim hate in Plainfield, Illinois in late October.

While driving, a man in a red pickup truck started yelling at him. As the two drove up to a stop light, he called Sameer a range of hateful epithets and comments ranging from “sand ni$%er” to threatening, “Gonna cut all your heads off like you did to the Americans!”. Upon seeing Sameer’s daughter’s carseat in the back, the man pointed to it saying, “little n&^%$r”.

“If you are alone, I would suggest not recording the incident at all,” said Sameer. The reason is because it is dangerous to be distracted and not having your eyes on road while driving . “I would recommend closing your window and ignoring the person's verbal attack. If an adult is sitting with you on the passenger side, I would have them record the incident, but would not engage in a back and forth. Some would say firing verbal assaults back could be dangerous as it could anger the attacker even more, causing the situation to escalate.

“At the same time, I could say recording someone could have the same result. If the attacker knows you are recording him or her it could anger them the same way. This is why I highly recommend not to record if you are alone.”

When recording by phone is safe, he recommended the following technical tips:

  1. Make sure you use your camera app, not Snapchat. For many young people, Snapchat is their first option to open a camera, however it only records 10 seconds and you have to hold the button down. Using the camera app will allow you to record non-stop and you will not have to hold a button down.
  2. Make sure the music in the car is off or volume is down. The background noise could cause disruption in the video or make it difficult to hear all voices.
  3. Do not provoke the attacker. It is best to stay quiet so nothing can be misconstrued or used against you.
  4. Make sure all your windows are closed except the one you are using to engage with the attacker. However, to be on safe side, you should not open it more than halfway.
  5. If you are alone, then put your phone on the dashboard or seat closest to the attacker so his or her voice can be picked up at the very least. Even if you cannot see him or her in the video, if the voice can be heard, it is much better than just your word when reporting an incident with no evidence.
  6. Make sure at some point during the video or after taking the video that you are able to get a picture of the attacker's license plate. If that is too difficult, at least try to read the license plate and note it down immediately.

Where a video is available, Jaleel advised, “file a police report immediately and let the police copy the video.”

Salman said in hindsight, she would have made a point to record the incident of hate she had experienced.

“Had I been advised or had I read that that is something you should do, I would have done it, because in the moment, you don’t remember. You’re in fear and I had my son in the back of the car, so I was trying to control my fear.”

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