The city of Davis is getting closer to enacting a police body-worn camera policy. For the most part that is a good thing, in that it will give us another layer of transparency and oversight.
On the whole I think this is a good thing, as body cameras have already proven invaluable in a number of nationally publicized encounters between police and citizens which have resulted in the use of force and death.
However, I remain concerned with two specific aspects of the policy. One is that the police will not release the video unless compelled to do so by the courts. That means, unless there are criminal charges and the incident goes through the criminal court process or there is civil litigation, the public will not have the opportunity to view video footage. That really puts a limitation on transparency.
The second and perhaps more serious concern is that the proposed policy, which by the way will be enacted administratively rather than through the council, will allow officers to view the video prior to writing their police reports. That means that, in a critical incident, officers may have the ability to tailor their reports to the video, perhaps creating an alibi.
Most people believe that most police officers are honest and hardworking. They also tend to believe that problems that are occurring “are over there” and do not impact our local police department. For the most part that is true. I have a great respect for the improvements under outgoing Chief Landy Black and a great hope that they will continue under incoming Chief Darren Pytel.
This is not a criticism or indictment of Chief Pytel or the men and women working under his command. If anything, body-worn cameras should protect honest and hardworking police officers from baseless allegations, while protecting the public from the excesses of those who are less honest and ethical.
Two recent incidents demonstrate the need for a strong and transparent policy.
This week, Chicago police have now released audio from the night in October of 2014 when Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Until this week, the public had only seen silent video of the shooting.
Officers called for a Taser. Two officers had been trailing Mr. McDonald and called dispatch, “Can someone get us a Taser? We’re at 40th and Keeler. This guy, ah, kind of walking away, he has a knife in his hand.”
“Anybody have a Taser?” the dispatcher called out. “Looking for a Taser; armed offender.”
Ninety seconds later she calls out again. “Anybody close yet?” she asks. “Asking for a Taser for armed offender with a knife.”
Officer Van Dyke and his partner arrived 10 minutes after the first call, their weapons drawn as they stepped out of the vehicle. Despite no change to the situation, within six seconds of exiting the police car, Mr. Van Dyke opened fire. His partner finally told him to hold his fire as he reloaded.
Mr. Van Dyke was charged with murder last month as the video from the police dashcam video doesn’t match the police department’s initial narrative of the shooting – where Pat Camden, a spokesman for the police officer’s union, said that the teen “had lunged at the officers with a knife, prompting one of them to open fire.” He described Mr. McDonald as having a “crazed” look when he approached officers with a knife. NBC Chicago said police described the incident as “a clear-cut case of self-defense.”
“The officers are responding to somebody with a knife in a crazed condition, who stabs out tires on a vehicle and tires on a squad car. You obviously aren’t going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them,” Mr. Camden told CBS Chicago after the incident. “He is a very serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.”
But the dashcam shows a different story and now the audio shows that police were satisfied to be simply following the teen until a Taser arrived. Officer Van Dyke jumped out of his car and immediately opened fire, in contrast to the way his fellow police officers handled the situation.
Meanwhile, the situation in Paradise near Chico, which has gotten little publicity, is troubling. During a brief pursuit, a car driven by an alleged drunk driver strikes the median and flips over. The officer approaches the vehicle, and for reasons that are unclear, he pulls out his weapon and seems to aim the weapon and pull the trigger.
While the DA ruled the shooting an accident, the video not only shows the officer shoot the man, but he waited 11 minutes to report the shooting. In the process he claimed that the man was in the car and uncooperative, then that he was not the one to shoot him. Just as police were about to go back to the bar to find out who shot the man, the officer finally admitted, “I think I shot him… I wasn’t even pointing at him but the gun did go off.”
Butte County DA Mike Ramsey apparently bought into this story, “The dash cam video shows Officer Feaster was not prepared for and was surprised by the gun’s firing. The pistol discharges in mid-stride and the officer both flinches his head to the right and does a stutter step indicative of an officer not prepared for nor intentionally firing his pistol. Additionally, officers normally train to fire a minimum of two shots. There was no second shot and the officer immediately holstered his weapon after the discharge.”
But the lack of acknowledgment and reporting of the shooting are alarming. Fortunately, we have the dashcam video to analyze the story of the officer against what actually occurred.
—David M. Greenwald reporting