How police hide use of force incidents from the public

Video footage doesn’t guarantee justice.

Miami-Dade Police Department PIO Marjorie Eloi wears a body camera during a news conference in April 2016. Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Doral, Fla. Police body cameras have become more popular following a number of controversial officer shootings around the country. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Miami-Dade Police Department PIO Marjorie Eloi wears a body camera during a news conference in April 2016. Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Doral, Fla. Police body cameras have become more popular following a number of controversial officer shootings around the country. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Protesters in Charlotte fervently chanted “Release the video!” following the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott earlier this month.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department initially refused to divulge the video captured on body cameras worn by police officers on the scene, saying that would jeopardize the integrity of the investigation into whether Scott brandished a weapon, as police claim. It wasn’t until after the release of video shot by Scott’s wife, Rakeyia Scott, that police complied with public demands.

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But neither Scott’s video nor the dashboard and body camera videos released by police actually show the shooting — only the events preceding and its aftermath. The police officer who fatally wounded Scott, and who hasn’t been identified, didn’t turn on his body camera until after firing his weapon.

Scott’s death is the latest in a string of publicized police killings of black people that have fueled a growing national debate regarding systemic discrimination in police departments’ treatment of the black community. Over the past several years, the public and activists have demanded for police to wear and use cameras to give more objective accounts of these deadly encounters. But Scott’s case highlights the fallibility of police procedure in terms of how and if a video of a fatal encounter is captured or released.

Most recently, Danville, Virginia police officers were accused of purposefully blocking their dashcam lenses by popping up their car hoods. The department responded to the controversy to say it would stop its practice of opening car hoods to “cool down” cruisers’ engines.

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But those are hardly the only examples. Across the country, police departments have obfuscated either recording or releasing video footage.

Officers fail to turn cameras on

In August, when the Chicago Police Department released nine videos of the fatal shooting of Paul O’Neal, there was one glaring omission: none of the videos showed the actual shooting itself. The footage only showed the moments before and after the unarmed black teenager was gunned down.

When protesters demanded an explanation, Superintendent Eddie Johnson said officers weren’t accustomed to using the cameras because the policy of wearing them is new. That answer was reiterated by Dean Angelo, the local police union president, who told radio station WBEZ 91.5 that turning on body cameras isn’t “second nature.”

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Angelo added.

Officers intentionally turn cameras off

During a traffic stop in St. Louis last year, officers kicked and tasered a man after he made an illegal U-turn and parked without warning. Dash cameras captured the violent encounter up until Officer Kelli Swinton shouted, “Hold up. Hold up, y’all. Hold up. Hold up, everybody, hold up. We’re red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait!”

The dash cam video cut off moments later.

Officers demand more pay to hit record

In August, representatives of the Cincinnati police union said officers wouldn’t wear body cameras unless the city agreed to pay them more money.

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“Requiring employees to wear BWCs will change several aspects of their job and regularly assigned duties,” Attorney Stephen Lazarus wrote in a statement. “The adoption of of new BWC policies will also have a significant impact on the employees’ wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Accordingly such changes are mandatory subjects that must be bargained to impasse with the union before they are implemented.”

Cameras fall off

In July, the Baton Rouge officers involved in Alton Sterling’s death almost walked away without anyone knowing what happened.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. informed reporters that Officers Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni were equipped with cameras, but the equipment fell off their bodies during Sterling’s arrest. As a result, neither camera captured the shooting.

The incident was ultimately captured by a bystander who filmed it on an iPhone.

Videos are shielded by law

Before the Charlotte Police Department released footage of Keith Lamont Scott’s shooting, Police Chief Kerr Putney claimed the law prohibited him from releasing the video. Specifically, Putney said a court has to order the video’s release, per a new state law.

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According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the law preventing the video’s release hadn’t actually gone into effect yet. But state laws are increasingly restricting the public’s access to videos of police shootings. At least 19 states and D.C. have passed laws that affect whether police body camera footage can be publicly released.

Videos are edited

As the Huffington Post wrote last year, it’s “almost impossible” to determine whether or not police have edited videos prior to their release. But in some cases, it’s hard to argue that footage wasn’t tampered with.

After her mysterious jail death in 2015, dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop was eventually released to the public. But journalist Ben Norton quickly noticed two questionable moments in the footage that suggested officials had edited it.

In one clip, a tow truck driver was captured exiting his vehicle and walking around a cop car two times, but audio of Officer Brian Encinia was uninterrupted. In a second clip, Encinia’s account of the arrest remains uninterrupted when the same car drives by and makes a left turn twice within seconds.

Footage is “accidentally” destroyed

While it’s hard to prove that foul play was involved behind the scenes, thousands of videos have accidentally been wiped from police databases. This year, at least two police departments reported camera footage was mistakenly deleted: the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and Oakland Police Department (OPD).

In August, the SPD announced that 2,283 dash cam videos — many of which captured stops, arrests, and uses of force — were accidentally lost because of a computer error. The same thing happened eight years ago, when more than 100,000 videos vanished, according to a department auditor.

Earlier this month, the OPD’s police sergeant, Dave Burke, admitted that department employees deleted 25 percent of all body camera footage during a software update in 2014.

Cameras are intentionally destroyed

After Chicago police released video of 16-year-old Laquan McDonald’s shooting, news site DNAinfo discovered that city officers — including the teenager’s shooter — routinely damaged dash cam recordings. Officer Jason Van Dyke and his colleagues broke the cameras so that no audio could be heard.