Police accounts and videos of violent incidents don’t always tell the same story: NPR

A memorial is displayed for Tire Nichols at the Embrace statue in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 2023.

Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

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Police accounts and videos of violent incidents don't always tell the same story: NPR

A memorial is displayed for Tire Nichols at the Embrace statue in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 2023.

Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

In the days after Tennessee officials released video footage showing Memphis police officers brutally beating Tire Nichols, law enforcement faced a new wave of criticism.

Some of it has focused on how authorities initially portrayed the incident – and what the videos actually show.

According to a Memphis Police Department statement the day after Nichols’ beating, officers arrested a suspect on suspicion of reckless driving and “a confrontation ensued”. The suspect fled, the police followed him and “another confrontation occurred”.

(The statement notes that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was investigating the arrest “due to the condition of the suspect.”)

Video footage released Friday, taken from officers’ body cameras and a street surveillance camera, shows a different story. In the videos, police quickly pulled Nichols out of his car, shouted obscenities and threats, then pepper sprayed him. Nichols flees, and when the police finally catch him a second time, the officers kick him, hit him with a baton, and repeatedly hit him in the head while he is restrained.

For some, the discrepancy between the initial police statement and what was captured on video brought to mind previous cases in which the initial statement by law enforcement about a violent encounter was vague, misleading or false.

Critics say the unclear and obscure language police sometimes use to describe violent incidents to the public can further damage trust with communities who may already be skeptical of law enforcement.

“To the extent that you release statements that state one thing and the video footage released later shows the complete opposite, it’s definitely problematic in trying to build police-community relationships,” said Andrea Headley, professor at Georgetown. The university’s McCourt School of Public Policy, told NPR.

High-profile incident footage has sparked skepticism over police accounts

On May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department said officers responded to an ongoing forgery and arrested a suspect. “Officers successfully handcuffed the suspect and noted that he appeared to be in medical distress,” a news release read. “The officers called an ambulance.”

The man was George Floyd, and video footage of the incident captured by a bystander showed former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd pleaded to several times: “I can’t breathe!” Floyd died that day.

When the New York Police Department revealed the death of Eric Garner in 2014, a police spokesperson said a man was “taken into custody, went into cardiac arrest and died”, according to a New York Daily News article at the time.

But bystander video showed former NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in a chokehold until he passed out. The New York City Chief Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

In 2018, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office first reported that 23-year-old Dujuan Armstrong died of a drug overdose inside Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California. Guardian reported, body camera footage released later showed officers put Armstrong in a compression vest and spitting mask before he became unresponsive. An autopsy revealed that Armstrong had died of asphyxiation due to the restraints.

Headley, the Georgetown professor, said police had a number of reasons for releasing vague statements at the start of use-of-force investigations, including the possibility that those making the statements may not have all the facts. .

For example, John Elder was the Minneapolis Police Department’s director of public information in 2020 and wrote the initial statement on Floyd’s death. He told the Los Angeles Times that he got his information from sergeants and computer-aided dispatch, and that he had not seen any video footage of the encounter before writing the press release.

“It literally had no intention to mislead or to be dishonest or hypocritical. If we had known that this [situation] was what we saw on the video, that statement would have been completely different,” Elder told the newspaper.

Headley also said the statements could be vague because investigators are still gathering evidence, or that police leaders might be unwilling to admit a mistake or hurt morale by condemning the actions of a policeman too quickly. officer.

“But I think where the conflict comes in is when there are discrepancies in the report or in the statements that come out that don’t match the evidence when it comes out. And when the language used is particularly that trying to abdicate responsibility,” she said.

Even after violent incidents, there are ways for police departments to try to build trust, Headley suggested.

She said she was working with an agency that brought in community leaders for an explanation of an incident before discussing it with the media. Departments can also recognize if they are still investigating what happened, she said, including if they have not yet reviewed any video evidence.


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