Eric Garner

Catching Cops on Camera Can Be Crucial

Notwithstanding the Eric Garner case, video evidence is a powerful weapon against police brutality.


Last week, in response to the shooting of Michael Brown and other controversial uses of deadly force by police, President Obama proposed federal funding for body cameras to record interactions between cops and members of the public. Two days later, a Staten Island grand jury cast doubt on the usefulness of such recordings by declining to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, despite bystander videos that show him using a prohibited chokehold on Eric Garner, who died after he was tackled by cops arresting him for selling loose cigarettes.

The Garner case shows that video evidence, which may be subject to interpretation, is not necessarily decisive in determining whether a police officer's use of force was legal. But it can make a crucial difference, as illustrated by several other cases.

Video of Officer Darren Wilson's deadly August 9 encounter with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, could have resolved several important questions on which eyewitnesses disagree, including who started the initial fight, whether Wilson fired on Brown as he was running away, whether Brown charged Wilson, and whether Brown was trying to surrender when Wilson fired the final, fatal shot. Such a recording, if it supported Wilson's account, also might have prevented the unrest that followed the shooting.

Two days before a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson, a Cleveland police officer, Timothy Loehmann, shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun outside a recreation center. According to Loehmann, Tamir failed to follow three orders to show his hands. Yet security camera footage shows Loehmann shooting the boy within two seconds of pulling up, leaving little time for those purported commands to be issued, let alone understood.

It is not clear yet whether Loehmann, a rookie whose previous employer deemed him emotionally unfit to be a police officer, will be indicted, let alone convicted. But without that inconvenient video, we probably would not even be asking those questions.

Another striking example of the difference a video can make: On September 14, 2013, Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer Randall Kerrick fatally shot Jonathan Ferrell, who was mistaken for a burglar when he sought help after an early-morning car crash. A 15-second dash-cam video of the shooting—during which Kerrick fired 12 rounds, striking Ferrell 10 times—convinced Police Chief Rodney Monroe to charge Kerrick with voluntary manslaughter later that same day.

Based on the video, Monroe determined that Kerrick "did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter." Last January, after watching the same video, a grand jury agreed that Kerrick should be charged with voluntary manslaughter.

Similarly, bystander videos made it clear that Oscar Grant did not pose any threat that justified the use of deadly force when he was shot and killed by transit cop Johannes Mehserle at an Oakland, California, train station in 2009. But the jurors who heard the case against Mehserle evidently found it plausible that the shooting was accidental, because they convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, for which he received a two-year sentence.  

As that verdict illustrates, video evidence may leave unresolved crucial issues concerning intent. In the Garner case, Officer Pantaleo reportedly told the grand jury he never meant to use potentially lethal force, describing what looked like a chokehold as a sloppily executed takedown maneuver.

The Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King in 1992 and the Fullerton, California, cops who killed Kelly Thomas in 2011 likewise argued that seemingly damning videos, once broken down blow by blow, actually showed appropriate responses to resistance. In both cases jurors found the explanations persuasive enough to acquit the officers (although two of the L.A. cops were later convicted in a federal trial).

Some of these decisions suggest that grand jurors and trial jurors are excessively inclined to trust the police. Video evidence cannot eliminate that bias but may prevent jurors from acting on it.

Copyright © 2014 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. The goal’s met, time to turn off the pop-up

    1. I don’t think they know how.

      1. It has developed a will of its own. This is the end of man as the dominant species on Earth.

        Hold me, UCS. I am afraid.

  2. “Some of these decisions suggest that grand jurors and trial jurors are excessively inclined to trust the police. Video evidence cannot eliminate that bias….”

    What are you going to believe, our explanations about proper procedure or your own eyes?

    1. What I would like a succinct answer to in the Garner case is what were the cops supposed to do? In a just world, what should the cops have done? Not abstract platitudes about justice and the use of force, but real, LAWFUL, and decisive alternative actions that could have been used as an alternative in this specific case. Any actions to detain him after he began resisting arrest could have led to his death, given his poor health, and Garner gave the cops no alternative but physical force in order do what the law commanded them to do and detain him. They didn’t write the law.

      If it is so obviously unjust what happened to Garner, as so many protesters believe, shouldn’t anyone be able to easily articulate the equally obvious and proper course of action the cops should have taken?……….Crickets……… “I can’t breath” T shirts, sadly, are not a solution or even allude to a solution. It is just more emotion that answers nothing. The fact that there is no easy and obvious answer that satisfies the mob emotionally, means the obvious makes the mob uncomfortable and doesn’t fit the false narrative being created around this incident.

      Don’t resist arrest. You will lose. Live to fight another day. Eric Garner: Martyr for the cause of freedom to sell loosies. I think I would find a bigger cause to martyr myself over.

      1. 1. Don’t initiate an arrest without probable cause. There remains as yet no articulated evidence that justified the arrest of Eric Garner on this occasion.

        2. Having begun an arrest, use force only to the extent necessary to effect the arrest. If the arrestee is repeatedly saying he can’t breathe, then you are employing a greater level of force than necessary.

        3. “I think I would find a bigger cause to martyr myself over.” Such as what, exactly? You are asking for specifics but then leave open a giant hole of ambiguity.

  3. I look forward to the day all police wear body cameras, if only to see how many how often find the off switch.

    1. Maybe the cameras can be controlled and the footage viewed by a group of concerned citizens (Reason commenters?). If you dicks aren’t doing anything wrong, right?

    2. I look forward to the day when the off swich instead keys a 10000 volt electical jolt directly to the officer trying to turn it off. Mix them in randomly with the regular cameras and see what happens.

      1. Can it make a whammy sound when it does too? That would be amazing.

        1. Can we get a squealing pig sound instead?

    3. At the very least, all SWAT teams deployed should be required to wear Go-Pros that automatically turn on when they lower their face guards.

  4. I guess if the public sees enough of these videos ad hears enough of the stories, they will lose faith in the police and stop declining to indict. It would be nice if they just stopped be horrible at their jobs and stopped shooting people for dubious reasons, but since that seems unlikely, best we can hope is that they all get caught on video.

    1. My thoughts as well. Sooner or later some cop will do something so heinous and brazen that the grand jury will have no choice but to indict. And the ranks of the thin blue line will close in around them and maybe, just maybe, the average person will begin to see how vile and tyrannical our heroez in bloo can really be.

      Or not. But a man can dream.

      1. Cops have already done some brazen and horrible things – Kelly Thomas; shooting that 12-year old with the pellet gun – but the public isn’t outraged because the major media don’t care to publicize it.

        1. The public isn’t outraged because most people haven’t interacted with the police beyond traffic enforcement, so they think these things are outliers.

          1. If these things were regularly publicized, like the Ferguson shooting was, then people would realize 1) they are not outliers, they are sadly fairly common; and 2) the police are committing and getting away with horrible things. Actual interaction wouldn’t be necessary if police malfeasance was regularly covered by the media. There is a good amount of outrage over Garner due to the coverage of the incident. If other, even worse, acts the police have committed were given similar coverage things might actually change.

            1. You saw how the cops treated journalists in Ferguson. If these things were regularly publicized, then being a journalist would quickly become a deadly occupation.

        2. Agree.

          Related serious question: I keep seeing reports that Tamir Rice had a “toy pellet gun” or words to that effect. Anyone here know exactly what he was “brandishing”?

          1. It was an pellet gun in the same shape as an extended barrel M1911 semi-auto.

  5. The system is rigged to protect police form justice. Police unions, blue code of silence ,compliant D.A.’s and the benefit of doubt give to cops from judges and juries.. There are also those that believe this type of violence is needed to fight crime,as long as it’s not aimed at them. Hell,look at the defenders of the C.I.A. torture tactics, no one will pay a price.Even those in public office do not call for punishment of those involved. Just the need to learn from ‘our’ mistakes.Is it too early to drink?

    1. Look Adans, the CIA is very ashamed and will have to go to bed without dessert. They promise not to torture again, or at least not to tell anyone about it. Satisfied?

      1. Yeah,now they just use drones and kill their ‘target’,and anyone else in the area.No muss,no fuss,all good..So much ‘cleaner’.

    2. If you watch prime time television dramas the blue code of silence is usually portrayed as a good thing. It’s never too early.

      1. Those shows disgust me.

        1. Unfortunately they’re very popular, which only increases my disgust level.

    3. The system is rigged to protect police form justice.

      IN Illinois, it is especially egregious


  6. Slightly OT:

    You know TEAM BLUE is in Full Surreal Mode when releasing information showing the Obama administration acted as actual terrorists, actually terrorizing people, is considered a savvy PR move meant to distract people from even more heinous shite said administration was up to regarding Obamacare.

  7. Illinois is going backwards re cop videos:…..g-ban.html

    1. oh crap, I didn;t see you posted this and posted upthread.

      This part particularly struck me…what transparent people we have in Springfiled:

      It was introduced on Tuesday, Dec. 2, as an amendment to an existing bill on a completely different subject. The amendment removed all of the bill’s previous content and replaced it with the new ban on recording. The House passed it the following day, and the Senate passed it the day after that. So the people who would have cared most about this bill …might have had their attention focused on other issues … such as the recorded police killing of Eric Garner.

  8. The John Crawford case clearly shows how grand juries will believe a (non)prosecutor rather than their own lying eyes. The video shows beyond doubt that Crawford was shot on sight without even having noticed the presence of the police officers, yet, no bill.

    1. And also, no story on the nightly news.

    2. And this is why I think cameras will only work in a more libertarian society.

      Fellators on either team will accept the narrative as spelled out in context, when they should be rejecting it without any regard for the context.

      There is no justifiable reason why an armed *team* of men cannot subdue an unarmed man and few justifiable reasons why a man should be summarily executed on the spot.

      ‘Accidents will happen’ is not SOP.

  9. “Such a recording, if it supported Wilson’s account, also might have prevented the unrest that followed the shooting.”

    You eternal optimist, you!

    It might have kept it from getting as bad as it did, but the Poverty Pimps like Sharpton don’t need to make sense to get a crowd stirred up, and getting crowds stirred up is what their cash-flow depends on.

    Yes, body cameras are a good idea. So is not nickel-and-dime-ing already poor people with petty law enforcement, as Radley Balko has pointed out. If the busybodies hadn’t passed a law against selling lose cigarettes, then there would have been no reason for the police to go all WWF on Garner. Other petty regulations abound; politicians of all parties (save, just maybe, the Libertarian Party, and they’ll have to prove it to me) exude them like sweat.

    I’m ranting now. Sorry.

  10. The only reason the Camera didn’t lead to a TRUE BILL is due to local corruption.

    The good news is that this particular incident will hopefully lead to changes in which the Local Prosecutor should be replaced by a Real Prosecutor in the event that a police officer, a district attorney, or any other local government employee is accused of a crime.

    In this case, the Local prosecutor gave immunity to the other officers involved so that they could just go to the Grand Jury and Defend their friend.

    The entire world saw what happened. Even GWB found the Grand Jury finding completely ridiculous. Many of my right-wing conservative friends are agreeing that government officials and government employees can’t be prosecuted in the same system in which they work in.

    Let’s have the Cameras. But, make the local police municipality pay for it. It is in the interest of the local municipality to avoid hefty lawsuits. I don’t believe that the Federal Government should fund it. The Feds should mandate, but not fund.

    1. What legal mechanism would the Feds use to mandate body cameras to all local LE agencies?

      Outside of suing every state and local law enforcement agency in the country to get a consent decree, this little thing called “Federalism” will get in the way. Also see US v. Printz.

      1. What legal mechanism would the Feds use to mandate body cameras to all local LE agencies?

        Personally, I don’t even see a need to really mandate the cameras. They could just lower the burden of guilt wrt position/employment and (un)bias the prosecution; Tell every cop that any given shooting could cause them to lose their job unless they have indpenedently documented proof of what occured and that they won’t face a grand jury in a friendly jurisdiction/precinct.

        If Glock can put a gun in the hands of 90+% of the precincts in the country as a sellling feature, certainly GoPro could do similarly, especially combined with the incentives above.

  11. Maybe get Alan Funt back and have him do a series Candid Cops on Camera. Have petty criminals mildly or briefly oppose a cop’s order all on hidden camera. We can laugh along at the zany antics of escalate- until- compliance cops. They won’t disappoint like the damn anaconda.


      Dashingly handsome cryptobiologist

  12. Jacob, You should include the case of Daniele Watts in your assessment. The audio recording turned that from being a he said/she said civil rights case into a case where community leaders were demanding she apologize for misleading them and falsely claiming civil rights abuse…

  13. I’m surprised other libertarians are so cool with body cameras. We don’t like surveillance cameras in just about every other context, but when it comes to police, we’re like “Cool, bring it on.”

    As a police officer in another life, I’m actually all for them. No cop I know wants to be the next Darren Wilson, and the amount of retaliatory complaints body cameras will clear up is definitely a positive.

    But no one seems to even be discussion the potential civil liberty implications of hundreds of thousands of cops walking around recording creating publicly-accessible records of all their interactions with people.

    1. We don’t like surveillance cameras in just about every other context, but when it comes to police, we’re like “Cool, bring it on.”

      You’re considering the camera rather than the motive. Sousveillance, we’re all in favor of, surveillance, not so much.

      Even with increased surveillance, I’d rather have the cops sitting in a room in front of the day’s video feed, issuing (non-)trivial citations via mail (a la traffic cams) rather than choking people to death in the street.

      I’m cool with body cameras. As a libertarian, it’s on you to own your own photons.

      1. I should say, I’m cool with body cameras as far as they go.

        There’s still plenty of situations where cameras (would) provide a greater contextual understanding of situations that resolved incorrectly regardless of context.

    2. The first thing you have to understand is there is no “right to privacy”. It is an invention of the Supreme Court to retroactively and very narrowly reign in the power of the other branches after the Court itself had written them a bunch of blank checks.

      Insofar as it can be understood as procedural protection rather than a true natural right, the “right to privacy” just means that the government cannot take action against you based solely upon things which are “generally held” to be private matters.

      The problem with surveillance isn’t the cameras themselves, although they can be viewed as problematic from an unnecessary spending perspective, it is with how the footage is used. A police body camera may record individuals involved in actions they would prefer remain private, but that only becomes a problem if the footage is misused.

      Put another way, you have no right to keep evidence from being made. You do however have some protection against certain forms of evidence being used against you.

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