Cops Released Video of a Shooting Scene, So Why Are Police Critics Madder Than Ever?

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti talk about police body cameras in 2014.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti talk about police body cameras in 2014.

Critics of the Los Angeles Police Department have long demanded that any video of controversial officer-involved shootings be released to the public. That way they can begin to trust cops' side of things.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck delivered today. But critics still are not happy. Why? In this case, the video appears to support the department's contention that 18-year-old Carnell Snell Jr. was wielding a loaded handgun when he was fatally shot by police Saturday afternoon. But critics say the department is releasing video almost exclusively in cases where it supports cops' version of events.

"If it can be done, it can be done when the video is not so flattering or doesn't fit their narrative," says journalist, commentator and police critic Jasmyne Cannick.

The killing of a young African-American man by cops helped spark multiple nights of protests at the scene of the tragedy — near West 107th Street and South Western Avenue in South Los Angeles — and outside the mayor's official residence in Windsor Square. The confrontation stemmed from a vehicle pursuit initiated by Metropolitan Division officers, who don't yet have body cameras.

But following mounting pressure over the circumstances of the teen's shooting, Beck told reporters he huddled with Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Commission president Matthew M. Johnson and decided to release security video to quell "significant misinformation" and "dueling narratives."

"The third party videotape evidence released today contributes to transparency in a case that has raised many hard questions," Garcetti said in a statement today. "My hope is that the decision to make this videotape public will be received on all sides as a step forward in strengthening that foundation."

The video (below) from a strip mall shows a fleeing Snell gripping a gun and putting it in his waistband as he pauses. It does not show the shooting.

"While the Los Angeles Police Department has a long standing practice of not releasing video evidence pending administrative and criminal investigations, the chief is exercising his discretion to release video in the interest of public safety," the LAPD said in a statement today.

Police observers say this is a problem.  

"Just releasing the evidence that supports shootings and not when it calls officers' actions into question — that's not transparency, it's spin," says Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California. "On the one hand, it's good that they release video if that's the start of a policy of releasing video. But they have to have a policy. They can't just decide to release video when it helps them and keep it secret otherwise."

Chief Beck argued that the video supported his view that handguns are a constant threat for cops on the streets of L.A. "Handguns are far too prevalent,'' he said at a press conference today. "Until we address the core issue of violence in our communities, ... primarily young men with guns, we are going to be doomed to this cycle.''

Another fatal officer-involved shooting Sunday at East 45th Street and Ascot Avenue in South L.A. was captured by cops' body cameras, Beck said, which show the man had a replica gun and that he was not, as at least one witness claimed, on the ground when he was shot. But video in that case is not being released, at least not yet. 

Other videos connected to officer-involved shootings were only released without police consent or through lawsuits. Police Commission-approved policy says such video will be generally withheld. Commission president Johnson, however, told us in summer that the commission will soon revisit the policy and reconsider issues of transparency.

The chief's position has been that video can inflame the public, exacerbate sorrow of the victims' families or invade the privacy of innocent bystanders caught on tape.

The ACLU's position is that any video of use-of-force incidents, including shootings and violent confrontations, or of cases where officers have been accused of misconduct, should be made available to the public within seven days, Bibring says. 

"The challenge is now on chief Beck to demonstrate some of that transparency even when it doesn't always benefit the department," says Cannick.


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