What might have been another shooting of an obscure black man by the police suddenly became an astonishing glimpse of life and death, black and white, police and civilian.

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WASHINGTON — Nothing has done more to fuel the national debate over police tactics than the dramatic videos: A man gasping “I can’t breathe” through a police chokehold on Staten Island, N.Y.; a 12-year-old boy shot dead in a park in Cleveland. And now, perhaps the starkest video yet, showing a South Carolina police officer shooting a fleeing man in the back.

In the South Carolina shooting, the most compelling evidence, provided by a bystander with a camera phone, was shaky and at times unfocused. But the video clearly showed the officer, Michael T. Slager, firing eight times as Walter L. Scott, 50, tried to flee after a traffic stop. The officer had claimed he fired amid a scuffle when Scott seized his stun gun and the officer feared for his safety.

“Without the video, we wouldn’t know what we know,” said Matthew Rabo, a college student who joined a demonstration Wednesday outside City Hall in North Charleston, where the officer in the shooting now faces a murder charge. “And what we know here is really significant: It’s the difference between an officer doing his job and an officer killing a man in cold blood.”

The bystander who made the cellphone video, Feiden Santana, told NBC Wednesday that he was walking to work and approached the scene because he noticed Slager controlling Scott on the ground. Santana, a barber originally from the Dominican Republic, began recording when he heard the sound of a Taser. He says, “Mr. Scott was trying just to get away from the Taser.”

The video then shows Slager firing eight times at the back of the unarmed man, until he crumples to the ground about 30 feet away. Not once in the moments recorded by Santana can the officer be heard yelling “stop” or telling the man to surrender.

Moments after handcuffing the dying man facedown on the ground, Slager walks back to pick up what appears to be the Taser, then returns and drops it at Scott’s feet as another officer arrives to check the dying man’s condition. Then he picks it up again after exchanging words with the other officer.

Santana turned the video over to Scott’s family and has been cooperating with investigators.

For Anthony Scott, the video confirmed what he had believed was true all along.

First came the unfathomable news that his younger brother, Walter, had been shot to death by a police officer after being stopped in the early ’90s-era Mercedes he had bought just a few days before. Then came the growing doubts about the initial police story that his brother had endangered the officer.

Then came the video.

It was delivered by a stranger who approached after family and friends placed flowers and said their prayers at the spot where Walter had died.

“I have something to share with you,” he said. They got into Anthony Scott’s car. Then the stranger showed him the video on his phone. “I knew it! I knew it!” Scott exclaimed.

What might have been another shooting of an obscure black man by the police suddenly became an astonishing glimpse of life and death, black and white, police and civilian.

The family’s lawyer, L. Chris Stewart, calls Santana a “hero.”

While cameras frequently exonerate officers in shootings, the recent spate of videos has raised questions about how much the criminal-justice system can rely on the accounts of police when the cameras are not rolling.

“Everyone in this business knows that cops have been given the benefit of the doubt,” said Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut lawyer who has defended several police officers accused of misconduct. “They’re always assumed to be telling the truth, unless there’s tangible evidence otherwise.”

Many cities have installed cameras in their police cruisers, and some — an estimated one-fourth of departments that responded to a 2013 survey — require so-called body cameras.

Video evidence is not new, of course; the tape of officers beating Rodney King in 1991 helped ignite the Los Angeles riots after the officers were acquitted. When departments began installing dash cams in the 1990s, many officers were opposed. But they quickly concluded that the recordings often cleared them of wrongdoing after citizen complaints.

“For the most part, unless you are behaving badly, those things are going to back you up,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police practices.

But cellphone videos taken by bystanders tend to make many police officers uncomfortable, because they have no control over the setting and often are not even aware they are being filmed until after an incident. Though the courts have held that people have a constitutional right to record the police, those who do are frequently challenged by officers.

As an example, a Justice Department report cited a traffic stop in which a Ferguson, Mo., officer told the driver’s 16-year-old son not to videotape him. The confrontation escalated, the officer wrestled the phone away from the teenager, and everyone in the car was arrested “under disputed circumstances that could have been clarified by a video recording,” the report said.

Cellphone videos have captured police officers pushing and slapping a homeless man in Florida and shooting a man who threw rocks at officers in Pasco, Wash. In February, two Pelham, N.Y., officers retired after a video contradicted their account of an arrest of a black man.

The increase in cellphone cameras is one reason many police unions do not oppose requirements that officers carry body cameras, said Chuck Wexler, the head of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington. “The big push for body cameras has been driven, in part, by the sense that citizens have their phones and can record, and it was only part of the whole story,” he said.

Data is still spotty, but an early study in Rialto, Calif., suggests that when officers carry body cameras, they are less likely to use force. Similar studies in Mesa, Ariz., and in Britain showed that citizen complaints also decreased.