One of the biggest challenges facing police officers and their leaders in the UK, Europe and North America is a rush to judgement from some in the media and portions of the public, such as groups like Black Lives Matter. We dissect one police stop to demonstrate why people need to wait for all the facts.
We’ve opted for this example of an “officer-involved shooting” from November 2015 in the City of Cayce in South Carolina in the United States. Police officers in North America benefit from much more widespread use of dashboard cameras (“dashcams”) and is the source of the footage in this example. However, imagine that it is instead filmed by a bystander and has just been posted online with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. You take a look:
You are incensed and appalled at this murder of yet another young black male by racist trigger happy police officers in the United States. You decide to retweet the video, sharing it on Facebook and Whatsapp. You feel so enraged by that white police officer shooting at the black guy who was guilty of no crime other than “jogging while black” that you decide you are going to join the next march with #blacklivesmatter and to echo the chants to kill cops. The news says that a “non-police issued firearm” was recovered at the scene. What a load of rubbish? Bet they planted it. Filthy racist pigs. How can they dare say that when this video shows that the guy was unarmed and was murdered in cold blood?! The whole system is a joke.
Thankfully, for this officer, the video wasn’t a snippet from a smartphone. It was from the dashcam in his own police car.
Let’s go back and start over…
The officer in the centre of the frame – the one we saw shoot in the first video – has been on patrol and noted a male apparently asleep or unconscious in the light coloured car. He is primarily concerned to ensure the welfare of the driver and so knocks on the window, eventually waking the driver up. On opening the vehicle door or window, the smell of cannabis is present and the driver steps out of the vehicle and a calm and polite conversation follows, with little indication of what is to come. We pick up the action as the officer offers some kind words:
So far, so calm – with the officer ‘cutting him a break’ in relation to a minor traffic offence. He offers sensible advice to the driver in relation to the smell of cannabis, taking the driver at his word that the reason for the smell was other people smoking in the vehicle. We return to the scene to see how things progress:
The driver proceeds to produce a small bag of weed (cannabis) and the officer – remaining calm – proceeds to deal with the offence. You can hear the officer describe what might otherwise go un-noticed by a member of the public: the driver tensing up.
It’s common for suspects to tense up when they are seeking to resist a particular course of action – whether it be an arrest or perhaps a stop and search. The “tensing up” could be described by some as “passive resistance”, but the reality is that the individual is wilfully using force to prevent a particular course of action. The “tensing up” is sometimes a pre-cursor to something more violent. In essence, it is a way of “buying time” for the suspect – enabling them to formulate a plan for what they might do next in order to try to get out of the situation they are in.
The officer continues to provide clear instructions – to not pull away – but it becomes clear that the suspect is not going to stop resisting and by the end of the clip we hear the lead officer explain that the suspect is now also facing a charge of resisting arrest. We’ve zoomed in on the officers and the suspect to help show what happens next:
That is why people need to wait for the facts.
Let me say that again: people need to wait for the facts.
It goes without saying that the officers were both lucky to survive.
Were it not for this dashcam video, the officer could have suffered a fate similar to – or perhaps worse than – that suffered by Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson Police Department following the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014. Perhaps the City of Cayce would have been subjected to rioting and disorder like that seen in Ferguson, with residents losing their homes, their businesses and livelihoods.
If a dashcam had been installed and body camera issued to Officer Wilson on 9 August 2014, perhaps it would have captured the fact that Michael Brown didn’t have his hands up, didn’t shout “don’t shoot” and more swiftly and visibly demonstrated what the Department of Justice investigation concluded after a thorough investigation:
Given Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and that his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other eyewitnesses, … there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat
Yet, in spite of the facts that eventually came out, a different narrative had already been established. It was a narrative built on a lie and empowered by parts of the media. That narrative remains in place today. Crowds continue to chant “hands up, don’t shoot” at Black Lives Matter protests and rallies in the UK and North America. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a chant, built on a lie. It is the product of failing to wait for the facts – and then choosing to ignore the facts when they do arrive. It speaks to an arrogance and ideological bias that is immune to fact or rational debate.
Officer Wilson was found to have acted reasonably – but his life and the life with his family have both been turned upside down. He will likely have to live as some sort of recluse long into the future and be on permanent guard, fearing an act of ill-conceived vengeance on him or his family. He has lost a career that he may very well have loved – and must now try to find some new place in the world. For in the simple act of seeking to defend himself he has found himself serving a life sentence – all because people would not wait for the facts.
Of course the death of a person will provoke emotion and there will be occasions where officers make mistakes – and in a very small number of cases some officers may even be guilty of criminal conduct – but we live in a society that can and must be governed by the rule of law. The rule of law means following a tried and tested process. It is a process that relies on facts and on evidence – it comes also with due process.
We afford these rights to even the most heinous criminals within society: rapists, child murderers and paedophiles. Is it too much to ask we provide our police officers with the same?
The dash camera footage is from the City of Cayce Department of Public Safety. You can read more about the case and view the full dash camera recording (14 minutes). We also hope that Officer Kelly and Officer Ballentine of the City of Cayce DPS have both made a full recovery following this traumatic event.