Bullets sprayed through the darkness and hit car windows, while bystanders, including children, fled for their lives, according to witnesses. This wasn’t a war zone; it was northeast Washington, D.C., last May, on the night an off-duty police officer shot and killed D’Quan Young, a 24-year-old black man.
Witnesses at the time told a local news outlet that the officer “rode past several times” then walked up, his “black baseball cap on backwards” like he was “coming to do something.” He then repeatedly shot at Young as the 24-year-old walked away. The officer allegedly continued shooting long after Young was on the ground. Witnesses claim he even reloaded his weapon.
Young never fired his gun, bystanders said.
Several days after the shooting, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham reported a contradictory narrative: the officer was the victim and Young “confronted” him.
“God forbid that wasn’t a police officer, we don’t know what might’ve happened to some other young man walking through that neighborhood,” Newsham told FOX5 DC. He also said “shots were exchanged,” although he did not provide evidence to support this analysis. (Metropolitan Police Department did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment, citing the case is under review by the U.S. Attorney’s office.)
While the off-duty officer was not wearing a body-worn camera (BWC) at the time of the shooting, there were private cameras surveilling the area, Newsham has said. Officers responding to the scene had deployed their BWCs.
It has been over 10 months since the off-duty officer killed Young, and his mother, Catherine, has yet to receive answers to basic questions. She still does not know the officer’s name, whether he knew her son, or why he was killed.
After weekly futile calls to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), Catherine Young brought her family’s story to the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety oversight hearing in February. The large hall in downtown D.C. was full of spectators and, as she began to speak, it quickly became apparent that her testimony would be painful and gripping.
On the evening of May 9, 2018, Catherine Young’s grandson alerted her to the shooting, she testified. She rushed to the scene, a playground. For hours, the police would not tell her where her son was taken. Finally, once she arrived at the hospital, Officer James Wilson refused to tell her the department where he worked (homicide) or let her see her son; instead, the officer asked her a barrage of questions. Frustrated, Catherine Young told him she would not answer any more questions until she could see her son.
Finally, the officer broke the news that Young was dead. Once Catherine saw his body, the officers would not let her touch him. “How can you a tell a mother you can’t touch her son?” she testified through tears.
“I just want to know [the officer’s] name,” she wept.
After the testimony, Councilman Charles Allen (D), chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety committee, described her story as “devastating.” He continued, “The incident is unacceptable, but in particular the way in which you are describing the interactions you had.” Allen expressed confusion about the department’s secrecy, and told Young that his office would follow up with the police for more information. (Allen’s office did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.)
A culture of secrecy
The Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Service’s (COPS) “Officer-Involved Shooting” handbook acknowledges that the law enforcement community has not reached a consensus regarding the release of information following an officer-involved shooting. However, it states that “the timely release of an officer’s name following an OIS incident enhances public trust in the investigative process and adds to the transparency and perceived integrity of the investigation.”
Despite the DOJ’s apparent push for transparent protocols, as of a 2016 report, D.C. and 23 states kept police misconduct records confidential from the public. As the gatekeepers of this information, departments do not need to tell the public that their neighborhoods are patrolled by officers who may have been reprimanded for racist language, use of force, or sexual assault. Fifteen states keep misconduct information from the public most of the time; 12 states release police disciplinary information freely to the public.
The tide is changing in some places. California, for example, passed Senate Bill 1421 last September, and the law went into effect in January. “The public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force,” the bill states.
Hotly disputed by police unions all over California, the bill makes police misconduct records completely accessible to the public via a public records request. Some departments frantically shredded their records in anticipation of the law.
Alex S. Vitale, consultant, author, and professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, told ThinkProgress that police departments tend to be secretive because of their belief that so many people are “anti-police.”
Police “tend to view most criticism of them as illegitimate and a threat to both the livelihoods of individual officers and the ideology that police are the only thing holding society together,” Vitale said. As a result, “they are extremely reluctant to share information or be transparent or accountable in any meaningful way.”
The D.C. police department does not have an official internal policy guiding the release of information following an officer-involved shooting. District law states that subjects of a body camera recording may watch the footage at an MPD viewing location. Non-subjects can request a video directly from the police. If it is denied, they can file a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) in an attempt to gain access.
Many major police departments have similar policies. But following a federal intervention in 2017, the Seattle Police Department implemented an officer-involved shooting media release policy which calls for the release of the names of all officers who discharge a firearm (“absent exigent circumstances”) within 48 hours. The department will also release relevant video footage and/or photos, if any exist, within 72 hours. Portland police procedures mandate the release of an officer’s identity following the use of deadly force within 24 hours, “absent a credible security threat.”
The D.C. police body worn camera program, initiated in October 2014, has been advertised by the department and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) as a way of increasing police accountability, transparency, and police-community relations. But, of the 25 officer-involved shootings from 2016 to 2018, reported by the Office of Police Complaints (a government-funded review body), D.C. police have released just three videos to its BWC Youtube Channel. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress that it submitted FOIA requests for the body-worn camera footage of the Young shooting, but MPD denied the requests, citing ongoing internal investigations into both incidents. Bowser’s office upheld both denials. Of the 112 FOIA requests for BWC footage between January 1, 2018 and June 30, 2018, 0 requests were granted in full and 28 were granted in part (46 of the requests are still open as of June 2018 and may still be granted). Bowser can order the release of footage at no cost to the public, but she has utilized this power infrequently.
Vitale, who is critical of BWC programs, said, “Body worn cameras seem appealing as a tool for police accountability, but they are being used primarily as a tool of evidence gathering by police.”
The public should “question the huge expenditures involved and their misuse for propaganda purposes, evidence, gathering, and surveillance,” he added.
A new study by the Washington D.C-based non-profit Upturn, which studies police departments’ body camera policies, seems to support Vitale: nationwide, body camera footage was not released in nearly 40 percent of fatal police shootings in 2017.
Cost can be a roadblock to footage release. In January 2019, a member of D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission was hit with an invoice of more than $5,000 upon requesting body camera video footage of an incident whereby a large group of police stopped and frisked black youth in Capitol Hill. The department attributes the cost to redaction of the video. Redacting video can be relatively easy and inexpensive. Yet the department hires an expensive private firm to redact their footage.
D.C. police post some videos free-of-charge at its discretion.
Beyond transparency and procedural reform
Young’s family — and the public writ-large — are wholly reliant on the police department and the mayor for information surrounding his death, a common circumstance which some advocates say is problematic.
Vitale said body camera footage should be taken away from the police and handed over to an independent civilian agency. He has also previously written that those directly affected by the footage, such as family members of the deceased, should have decision-making power over release of the footage.
Receiving access to information is of extreme importance to communities affected by police violence and their loved ones. Under the guidelines recommended by Vitale, Catherine Young, and countless other black parents who have lost their children at the hands of the police, would have some clarity, or at least empowerment, during a difficult period of grieving.
But policies favorable to increased transparency haven’t necessarily, by themselves, been demonstrated to prevent police violence. As previously mentioned, the Seattle Police Department implemented such policies in June 2017, yet their self-reported use of force incidents increased from 1,663 in 2017 to 2,190 in 2018. The department uses a disproportionate amount of force against black and brown individuals.
The D.C. government conducted the largest BWC study in the United States to determine whether BWCs are able to induce large scale behavioral changes in policing. More than 2,220 D.C. police officers were enrolled in the study; half were equipped with body cameras and the other half were not. The researchers did not detect a significant difference between the two groups regarding use of force or citizen complaints.
Body cameras may not adequately hold officers accountable because, oftentimes, police are not disciplined internally for on-the-job use of force. “They are much more likely to be disciplined for administrative mistakes or showing up late to work than unnecessarily killing someone,” Vitale said.
A policy focus solely on “procedural justice,” which addresses the ways the law is enforced, (through tools like body cameras) will reproduce racial inequity. These types of liberal policing reforms usually focus on police transparency, accountability, increased diversity, and communication with the public, while ignoring the ways in which policing and the legal system were originally designed to maintain and exacerbate racial inequity.
More substantive reforms, like reallocating police funds to emergency mental health care workers, are more likely to address racial inequities and more likely to prevent shootings like that of Young.
Ultimately, according to Vitale, “there needs to be more transparency about police policies, technology and misconduct. But this alone won’t be enough to change the impact of policing.”
“Instead people will need to use that data to fight for better policies and to demand that we quit relying on police to solve every social problem in our society.”