BEAVERCREEK, Ohio (AP) — A man walks through Wal-Mart, holding something to his ear as he passes a gun case. He leans toward a shelf and steps back into view, now holding a long, dark object — a gun? — as he walks past customers, who show no obvious reaction. Eight minutes later, surveillance video from a different angle shows him farther away. Suddenly he drops the object and crumples to the floor. Two more people come into view, walking toward him with firearms drawn.
Was it a justified fatal shooting by police or an unreasonable use of force? Does the soundless video offer enough information to answer that question?
In the Wal-Mart case and others, cameras meant to help catch bad guys or document police actions are drawing attention for capturing officers using force. The public circulation of those images increases transparency, but it also adds the risk of viewers rushing to judgment based on only part of the story.
“You might see a video and think that because you’re seeing an actual sort of account of what happened, you know the whole story. And it’s very rare that a video is actually going to be able to tell the whole story,” said Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University professor of criminal law.
At that Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, outside Dayton, 22-year-old John Crawford III was talking on a cellphone and picked up an air rifle on Aug. 5. A 911 caller reported seeing someone waving a gun and pointing it at people. Police said Crawford was shot when he didn’t respond to officers’ orders to drop the weapon, something the video can’t prove because there’s no audio.
Crawford’s relatives and their attorneys say he was “shot on sight” with no chance to respond and that the video proves the shooting was unreasonable. A grand jury concluded it was justified. A federal investigation is pending.
Sometimes a video instantly offers incriminating evidence. In South Carolina this month, a state trooper was fired and charged with assault after his dashboard video, with audio, showed an unarmed driver being shot in the hip. The trooper asks to see his license, the driver turns, the trooper orders him out of the car and fires, and the driver staggers back, his wallet flying from his hands as he raises them.
But video evidence doesn’t guarantee that legal outcomes will align with public perception. Many thought the 1991 videotape of the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police would guarantee a guilty verdict against officers; instead there were acquittals and a mistrial.
Since then, public evaluation of cases involving police action has changed with the growth of video-sharing via social media and the prevalence of video-capable smartphones, surveillance and police recording technology, said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a University of Dayton professor who teaches criminal law.
“It’s going to come more and more into play that the average citizen is going to be able to see what happens and make the judgment call,” he said.
In some cases, video may add more confusion than clarity. Police video from multiple angles provided different evidence in a 2003 fatal shooting of an unarmed driver by police in Shreveport, Louisiana, after a chase. Those officers, who said they mistook a cellphone for a gun in Marquise Hudspeth’s hand, were cleared of civil rights violations in his death.
Experts say images of such actions can affect how the public views law enforcement and use of excessive force.
“When they see these videos, they’re coming to the conclusion that misconduct is more common than they thought,” said Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project.
But legal experts note that in many cases, video supports the validity of officers’ actions. Pittsburgh officials determined a police officer didn’t use excessive force when he punched a woman at a gay pride event in June, an encounter caught on video. The following month, a Green Bay, Wisconsin, police officer shown throwing a man to the ground in a video posted on YouTube was cleared of allegations that he used excessive force.
The abundance of video and video sources is a positive development for police and a useful tool to get to the truth, but policies and training are still catching up to the technology, said John Firman, who directs the International Association of Chiefs of Police research division. To address that gap, the IACP is in the process of developing guidance for police in situations where they’re being recorded, he said.
Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus, Ohio. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and AP News Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York.
Examples of 2014 videos showing police using force
Sometimes videos of police using force seem to justify those actions; other times, they appear to prove officers acted wrongly. In either circumstance, seeing such videos might give viewers a false sense of understanding what happened when they don’t have full context. Video involving law enforcement has factored into perception of numerous police use-of-force cases this year. Some examples:
FEB. 14: Las Vegas
Dramatic cellphone video recorded by stopped motorists and obtained by a newspaper shows federal land management rangers and a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper scuffling with a 20-year-old man before he was fatally shot on a road outside Las Vegas. Authorities say D’Andre Berghardt Jr. was carrying a suitcase and other items and walking in and out of traffic. An attorney representing Berghardt’s family calls for federal prosecutors to take over the investigation.
MARCH 16: Albuquerque, New Mexico
A helmet-camera video shows a homeless, schizophrenic camper being fatally shot by officers after he gathered his belongings and appeared to prepare to surrender in an hours-long standoff. Other video released later by police shows that James Boyd pulled out two knives on officers who initially approached him and repeatedly threatened to kill police. On one dashboard camera video obtained by KOB-TV, one of the officers who shot Boyd was recorded earlier saying he would shoot the suspect in the penis. Boyd’s shooting has prompted a federal investigation, a violent protest and a wrongful-death lawsuit.
APRIL 19: Green Bay, Wisconsin
Video posted on YouTube shows an officer shoving a man against a parked car, throwing him to the ground and punching him. Investigators determined the man started the conflict and then resisted arrest, even while on the ground. The officer is later cleared of allegations of using excessive force.
JUNE 15: Pittsburgh
In a brief video clip posted online, a police officer punches a 22-year-old woman at a gay pride event. The officer says he was trying to break up a fight when he grabbed the woman by the head and punched her in the side so he could handcuff her, and that she fought with him. An advocacy group asks police to investigate the officer’s actions, and city officials determine he didn’t use excessive force. The woman was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest.
AUG. 5: Beavercreek, Ohio
Surveillance video without audio shows police responding to a 911 call fatally shoot 22-year-old John Crawford III inside a Wal-Mart, where he had picked up an air rifle from a shelf while talking on a cellphone and walking through the store. Police say he didn’t respond to orders to drop the weapon, and a prosecutor cites the video to explain why the shooting was justified. Crawford’s family says the footage shows the shooting was unreasonable and he had no chance to react. A grand jury concludes the shooting was justified. A federal investigation is pending.
SEPT. 4: Columbia, South Carolina
A South Carolina state trooper’s dashboard video, with audio, shows an unarmed driver being shot in the hip during a traffic stop. The trooper asks to see his license, the driver turns and reaches back into his car, and the trooper fires. The officer later offers an explanation to the driver: “Well you dove head first back into your car.” The trooper is fired and charged with assault. The case is pending.
SEPT. 20: New York City
Amateur video captures an altercation between police and a pregnant woman who is taken to the ground on her stomach by an officer. Police say she tried to intervene in the arrest of her teenage son in Brooklyn. Her attorney says Sandra Amezquita was asking police to “stop using excessive force” on her son. New York City police are investigating.
Associated Press News Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.