When Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia arrested Sandra Bland last summer in Texas, he claimed Ms. Bland was “combative and uncooperative” after he pulled her over and ordered her out of her car. As the special prosecutor pointed out this week, “the grand jury found that statement to be false.”
Instead, the video shows that the trooper escalated the confrontation with Ms. Bland after she refused his request to put out a cigarette. At one point, Trooper Encinia says he will forcibly remove Ms. Bland from her car and threatens her with a Taser, saying, “I will light you up.”
Police originally claimed that Ms. Bland assaulted the officer who pulled her over. But video footage of the arrest, followed by her death, quickly called that into question.
While Mr. Encinia will be duly slapped on the back of the wrist with misdemeanor charges, this incident once again reminds us that police officers – not all of them, not even most of them – can be dishonest in the face of critical incidents where they made tremendous errors in judgment and at times committed blatant misconduct.
If the series of high profile and nationally publicized police incidents have led to one change, it has been the call and proliferation of body-worn cameras, which will serve two key purposes. First, they will protect the public, as police officers who commit misconduct can be more easily identified and appropriately dealt with. Second, they will protect the officers from charges of misconduct in cases where the use of force turns out to be justified.
However, I remain concerned. Like many communities, the city of Davis is getting closer to enacting a police body-worn camera policy. My concern is that officers will be allowed to view the video prior to writing their police report. That means that, in a critical incident, an officer may have the ability to tailor the report to the video, perhaps creating an alibi.
This is a key point of controversy and the case law across the country and the state is perhaps going to have to settle the matter.
Now, Police Chief Darren Pytel has explained his rationale for creating the policy in this way. And it makes sense – at least in part. We know from studies on memory that memory is much more fragile, faulty and malleable than we would like to believe. In a critical incident, officers may focus on some aspects of what they saw and not have noticed other aspects.
The idea expressed by Chief Pytel is correct – officers will give a better account if they view the report first and write it second. In fact, I think most of the time, they can and should do that. After all, a report that is at variance with the video, through honest mistakes, will be easily impeachable in a court of law. That is a legitimate concern for officers.
In most cases, I don’t have a problem if the officers watch the video and then write their report. However, there are critical incidents – anything that will need review, like use of force and complaints about misconduct – that need a different policy and standard for review.
If the officers themselves become the subject of the investigation, it is inappropriate that they watch the video prior to making their report. We don’t allow people accused of crimes to have that luxury, and police should not either.
The Sandra Bland case is not the only one this year where initial statements by officers were directly contradicted by video evidence.
In the shooting death of Walter Scott, the police quickly released a statement alleging that Mr. Scott had attempted to gain control of a Taser from Officer Slager and that he was shot in a struggle over the weapon.
The police, relying on Officer Slager’s account, alleged that Mr. Scott had fought with the officer before deadly force was employed. Mr. Slager claimed that Mr. Scott “gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.” The officer then resorted to using his service weapon and shot and killed Mr. Scott.
Mr. Slager, through his attorney, said “he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force.”
“When confronted, Officer Slager reached for his Taser — as trained by the department — and then a struggle ensued,” Attorney David Aylor said. “The driver tried to overpower Officer Slager in an effort to take his Taser.”
Mr. Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon,” his attorney added.
Then the video was sent to the New York Times and it showed a very different story. Mr. Scott, was unarmed and fleeing. He was shot in the back by the officer from at least 15 feet and, following the fatal shot, the video appears to show the officer planting an object next to a fallen Mr. Scott.
In Chicago, the more elaborate cover up not only showed that police lied, but apparently, in new allegations, threatened witnesses when Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
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 showed that police were satisfied 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.
All three of these cases illustrate the importance of being able to weigh initial officer accounts against what the video records to have been occurring. The initial statement prevents the officer from being able to create an ad hoc justification for his actions that fit what the video shows.
As CNN points out in the McDonald murder, “Newly released documents in the Laquan McDonald shooting show how elaborately police appear to have fabricated their version of that moment and how officers stood by each other in verifying the details.”
Most of the time, police officers having access to the video makes sense, but, in critical incidents that need review by the department or by outside agencies, it seems inappropriate to allow police to view videos prior to making an initial statement.
—David M. Greenwald reporting