More and more often, when someone behaves badly in public, someone else is there with a cell-phone camera to record it, and a video goes viral. Watching such videos turns us into witnesses after the fact, but it also turns us into ersatz judges and jurors. There's a tendency to compare and rank the wrongdoing we see on our screens, and the comparisons make us more aware of the jaggedly uneven distribution of consequences and, at the same time, less able, from the discomfort of our living rooms, to do much about it.

The video of New York police officers putting a man named Eric Garner in a choke hold, after which he died, is a useful document. Garner's offense was the suspected peddling of untaxed cigarettes. The video shows the officers tackling him, with one seeming to grip him by the neck and then force his head to the ground, while Garner, who was forty-three and asthmatic, gasps and says repeatedly, "I can't breathe." The video is deeply disturbing to watch, but it could help insure that justice is served in the case. It has already started an important discussion about the proper use of force.

Garner's case is one horrifying outcome in the era of broken-windows policing. That approach prescribes arrests for small-scale lawbreaking, on the theory that major crime often finds a niche in neighborhoods where minor crime has been allowed to flourish. There's evidence to support the strategy, but it's not an unambiguous boon to crime-fighting, and it can inflict a disproportionate penalty for infractions of the cigarette-peddling, subway-dancing, panhandling variety. As a recent article in the Times pointed out, in 1995, the N.Y.P.D. made one felony arrest for every 1.3 arrests in "the broadest category of misdemeanors; by 2013, the ratio had grown to 2.5 misdemeanor arrests for each felony." Some of the offenses targeted are real social irritants. But the crackdown on them—not just in extreme examples like Eric Garner's but in the general pitilessness of the pursuit—can make urban life less civil, not more.

In 2007, Roger Goodell, the National Football League commissioner, adopted a new code for player conduct off the field. The behavior that prompted it—violent altercations, weapons possession, and so on—was a lot worse than the usual targets of broken-windows policing. But the code proceeded from a similar logic, that the way each of us behaves in our daily lives has an impact on the functioning of society, and that the behavior of N.F.L. players may exert an outsized influence. However, in the case of Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens who was disciplined last week under that code, Goodell and the N.F.L. showed that certain kinds of reprehensible behavior don't necessarily seem to warrant a stringent response.

Rice's case also hinges on a video. In February, someone leaked security-camera footage of Rice dragging his then fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. She appeared to be unconscious. Rice has not explained what happened that night, but he has not corrected the widely aired speculation that he hit Palmer during a fight. (The police and N.F.L. officials have reportedly seen the video recorded inside the elevator, which has not yet been made public.) Rice was charged with third-degree aggravated assault, but he accepted a deal in which he would enter a diversionary program, requiring community service and counselling, instead of going to trial.

At that moment, the N.F.L. could have chosen to send a strong message about how seriously it takes domestic violence. In an interview with CBS Sports in 2012, Goodell acknowledged that such abuse was an issue in the N.F.L. "We are going to do some things to combat this problem, because some of the numbers on D.U.I.s and domestic violence are going up and that disturbs me," he said. In fact, it's not clear that football players or other professional athletes are any more likely to be charged with acts of domestic violence than the general population. What does seem clear is that they are less likely to experience strict consequences. A study published in the Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law in 2010 notes that "conviction rates for athletes are astonishingly low compared to the arrest statistics. Though there is evidence that the responsiveness of police and prosecution to sexual assault complaints involving athletes is favorable, there is an off-setting pro-athlete bias on the part of juries."

The N.F.L. could have helped counter this sort of bias by levelling a strong penalty on Rice. It could at least have imposed one more on a par with that of another player who got into trouble recently, for a repeat drug-related offense. In May, Josh Gordon, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, was told that he faced a year's suspension for a positive marijuana test—in other words, for allegedly engaging in a victimless activity that is well on its way to legalization. (One sample from Gordon's incriminating test was lower than the accepted threshold; one was higher, but just barely.) Instead, the N.F.L. opted in Rice's case to mete out the fearsome punishment of a two-game suspension.

There was plenty of outrage from sports fans and reporters, but some of the hard-core Ravens fans who showed up at training camp last week took their first opportunity to give Rice a standing ovation. Many online commenters said that he was a good player and a good guy and that he shouldn't be judged by one mistake. But, of course, that's what the criminal-justice system does all the time. Rice no doubt regrets what he did—he said so at a press conference last Thursday, and he sounded sincere—which may be reason enough for his fans to love him again. Some commenters also noted that, because Palmer married Rice after the incident, and wrote a letter to the court on his behalf, she must have forgiven him, so why couldn't everybody else? That sort of reasoning ignores the fact that assault is assault, whether the victim "forgives" or not, and that when it comes to domestic violence forgiveness is at best a complicated thing. It's possible that the complete video mitigates Rice's responsibility. A police report noted that Rice and Palmer had been hitting each other—though it was Palmer who ended up on the floor. At the press conference, Rice, for the first time, referred to his actions as domestic violence, but if the events need to be clarified he and Goodell should say so.

Videos that do show crimes in progress may be helpful in identifying perpetrators or in drawing attention to an injustice that might have been neglected. But the proliferation of those videos can have a numbing effect. There they are on YouTube, or on Twitter, scrambled together with celebrity gossip and cat antics, administering brief shocks, then slipping from the grasp of our compassion. They seem at once urgent and very far away. So we watch, and maybe share the link, and hope that the consequences will fit the crime.