In the age of Black Lives Matter, where activists on Twitter quickly can turn quiet streets into organized protests and every person seemingly has a cellphone camera, the pressure on Bay Area police to deliver timely, accurate information after an officer-involved death has never been higher.
Law enforcement agencies around the country are finding they don’t have a lot of choice except to release information in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago — or else risk losing control of the narrative altogether. However, some critics say that information is only forthcoming when it paints the police in a good light.
Both versions played out last week in Oakland and San Jose, when community scrutiny forced the departments to take unusual steps for police agencies, which historically have kept a tight lid on incidents involving police killings.
Seeking to correct misinformation and quell community outrage, Oakland police for the first time showed select media the body camera videos from two recent controversial deaths.
The same day, the San Jose Police Department publicly acknowledged misstating the circumstances of an officer-involved shooting. They originally that said a man suspected in a murder case had reached for his waistband before officers fired, but the man had not done so.
San Jose police said the mistake was caused by a hasty report that proved untrue after further investigation. But their retraction, and the ensuing self-admonishment, also was highly unusual.
And in Sunnyvale, police shot and killed an armed suspect during a chase stemming from a call about suspected prostitution on Aug. 15. Two days later, officials released a two-page, single-spaced account chronicling the sequence of events leading to the deadly shooting in unusual detail.
And it isn’t just happening in the Bay Area. Police departments across the country are bowing under pressure, and the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t slowing down.
Shootings by police that once garnered little attention outside family and friends of the deceased are attracting huge crowds of protesters.
So is more information the new normal for police? Oakland police Chief Sean Whent says communities demand it — and more transparency builds trust.
“A police department simply saying that ‘it’s under investigation and you’ll hear about it when it’s done’ isn’t sufficient anymore,” he said.
In Oakland, the pressure started after Twitter users on Aug. 12 spread rumors that officers had shot armed robbery suspect Nate Wilks, 28, as he was trying to surrender, sparking protests that blocked highway ramps and led to minor property damage that night.
Whent’s decision to show the videos to the media was an unprecedented move by a Bay Area police department, although he also was criticized for not making the videos available to the larger public. The department on Friday also released the names of the three officers involved in that case.
Legally, the department doesn’t have to show anyone the videos until its investigation is over. The chief said he thought informing the media was a necessary public safety move to vindicate his officers and prevent unrest but without compromising authorities’ reviews of the incident.
“The public is skeptical, and in some cases rightfully so,” Whent said Thursday. “It behooves police departments to share as much info as they possibly can, but the public has to recognize we’re still doing an investigation that we have to protect.”
More agencies are equipping officers with body cameras despite years of initial resistance, and the purchases have been made easier thanks to new state and federal grants. But, like the rapid rise of Black Lives Matter after the shooting of Michael Brown a year ago in Ferguson, Missouri, many officers’ views on cameras changed because of that event.
There was no video of Officer Darren Wilson shooting Brown, who was unarmed; many officers thought Wilson was wrongly villainized and that body cameras might have saved his career.
Dennis Kenney, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and an expert in police training, agrees that Ferguson was a pivotal moment for many agencies.
“Ferguson is probably the point that kicked it off. It demonstrated communities are pushing back, and police have gotten the message,” he said.
But is the motive really transparency, or are departments trying to save their own skin? Kenney said it’s a mixed bag.
“The biggest thing is that police caught the idea that everyone is watching and recording. The media has also picked it up, so now there’s this focus on it. … They haven’t really had a choice but to respond,” he said.
Skeptics say police will only voluntarily release a video if there’s an advantage to their department, although that’s not always true. Authorities in Cincinnati recently released video of an officer shooting an unarmed black man. That officer was indicted on a murder charge.
In Oakland, the videos vindicated the officers and served the department’s purpose. But that didn’t mean Whent’s decision was roundly praised. Civil rights advocates were angered that police didn’t release the full videos to the public and initially excluded some media members.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the local First Amendment Coalition, said the department opened the door by inviting some members of the public for a viewing, and now all the videos should be released. Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney whose lawsuits against Oakland police abuses led to federal monitoring of the department, said that releasing some videos and withholding others could infer that police acted improperly in some cases.
Police are hesitant to craft firm policies about releasing body camera video without any direction from the courts, said William Sousa, a UNLV criminal justice professor in the midst of one of the largest studies on police body camera effectiveness.
Oakland police have no policy on when to release a police video, instead taking each incident on a case-by-case basis. That’s typical, Sousa said.
“I think you’ll see policies adjust quite dramatically across the board once there’s more case law,” he said. “We just don’t have many cases involving body-worn cameras that have hit the court systems.”
Other cities using police cameras also are struggling with how to use their new tools to engage the community.
In San Leandro, individual officers have the right to decide when to turn on their camera, but most do more often than not, Lt. Robert McManus said. There have been five officer-involved shootings since uniformed officers began wearing the cameras in September 2014, and all five were captured on camera, he said.
None of the footage has been publicly released. And it likely won’t.
“There is a need for the public to see this type of stuff, but there’s a stronger need in my opinion to protect that evidence in order to ensure a fair and unbiased trial,” McManus said, noting that the BART officer who killed Oscar Grant III at an Oakland BART station in 2009 had his trial moved to Los Angeles.
In Richmond, police officials in September released the name of an officer five days after he shot and killed a man outside a liquor store during a struggle. In other cities, the names of officers often are not released until months later when they appear in a district attorney’s report.
“You have a small window of time to accurately give information about what happened to reassure people,” said Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan. “The absence of that reassurance can cause a large amount of community outrage, which in recent history has spun into property damage and injury that is detrimental for everyone.”
Whent defended his decision, noting that the families of those killed by police were allowed to view the videos before the media. It’s important to the agency that families of those killed by police have the opportunity to see the footage, and important that the community understands when and why his officers used force, he said.
If the courts rule that Whent’s department did violate public records laws, there’s a chance it would be more guarded with its evidence in the future.
“I think what I did (Wednesday) is the right thing to do, and hope the courts will agree with me to that length,” he said.