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Why even body cams don't stop scrutiny of police-involved shootings

Why even body cams don't stop scrutiny of police-involved shootings
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Not long ago there were urgent calls by politicians and police reform advocates for the mandatory use of body cameras by police. The purpose was to capture indisputable video and audio evidence of an officer’s encounters with the public. The goal was to obtain an objective account of any confrontation or violent event between police and the citizens they serve. This was good not only for the citizens but also for officers and communities because it increased transparency. The camera doesn’t lie. 

The most dangerous encounters by police tend to be traffic stops, home or building entries, or responding to violent confrontations in progress. These situations carry great risk, not only to responding officers but all those involved. Why? Because when police arrive and attempt to intervene in an ongoing or potentially violent situation they are armed and, when circumstances dictate, they’re authorized to employ deadly force. The push for police body and dash cameras was focused largely on these high-risk encounters.

The FBI’s deadly force policy is: “FBI special agents may use deadly force only when necessary — when the agent has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent or another person. If feasible, a verbal warning to submit to the authority of the special agent is given prior to the use of deadly force.”  

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According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, “Broadly speaking, the use of force by law enforcement officers becomes necessary and is permitted under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or in defense of another individual or group.”  

There is no universal definition for use of force or firm set of rules for when officers should use force and to what degree. As the NIJ explains, every volatile encounter is different, as are the officers who respond to events. Officers are trained to recognize and assess life-threatening situations and make split-second decisions on the use of force — including the use of deadly force. Sometimes this comes down to a shoot/don’t shoot decision. The officer, victim and community will live with the aftermath of that decision.  

One commonality among all deadly force policies is the justification of its use: when the officer reasonably believes that the danger encountered poses an imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm to the officer or another person. Officers are trained to not employ warning shots and to aim at a person’s chest, not a limb. The attacker, surging with adrenaline, likely would not be slowed even after suffering a gunshot to an extremity.  

On April 20, a police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. The shooting was captured on the officer’s body camera and also by a neighbor’s home security camera from across the street. The 11-second police video has been widely viewed in the media. Whatever caused Ma’Khia to charge two people the moment Officer Nicholas Reardon arrived, she apparently was not deterred by the presence of a police officer or his commands to “Get down.” 

Many of us who have watched the video believe that Officer Reardon used deadly force to save the life of someone he believed was about to be stabbed. However, many others have condemned him for failing to de-escalate the situation before shooting. Should he have paused during those seconds of chaos to try to persuade Ma’Khia to drop the knife? His body camera recorded someone in the neighborhood saying immediately after the shooting, “You ever hear of de-escalating? No, you guys just shoot.”

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Twitter pundits have said the officer should have fired a warning shot, or wounded the attacker in an arm or leg, contrary to standard law enforcement training. Some have minimized the knife attack as normal roughhousing that an unarmed teacher could capably diffuse.  

More confounding is recent news that the woman who was nearly stabbed told police in Cleveland, where she went to stay with a relative, that she received death threats after someone posted her address, phone number and photo on social media. This reaction suggests that some people believe the woman is as much to blame for Ma’Khia’s death as the officer who fired the fatal shot. So, whose life matters?

Though often controversial, each police-involved shooting incident is different, with its own set of circumstances. Yet, even post-shooting investigations, which methodically gather facts to determine if law enforcement officers acted responsibly, have lost credibility with many Americans.

It was hoped that police use of body and dash cameras would help determine responsibility, or fault, in violent clashes between officers and the citizens they are sworn to protect. However, people can view an event and come to different conclusions. Cameras don’t lie, but in today’s polarized society, it seems we may desire to see events through a narrow lens.  

Mark D. Ferbrache was an FBI agent from 1983 to 2011 specializing in white-collar criminal investigations. He later worked in the bureau’s National Security Division and CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and held diplomatic assignments in Prague, London and Bucharest, as well as field office assignments in Seattle, New York and the FBI Headquarters in Washington. He is currently employed as a contractor in the U.S. intelligence community.