It’s been almost a year and a half since Ariane McCree was shot by police in a Walmart parking lot, handcuffed and in possession of a gun, but her family still have plenty of unanswered questions.
McCree, 28, had fled the Walmart in Chester, South Carolina, a small town an hour north of Columbia, after being handcuffed for allegedly stealing a $ 45 padlock in November 2019, the report said. police.
But exactly what happened next remains unclear in part because the police officers who responded did not activate their body cameras until McCree, a black dad and former high school football star, was shot down by heavy rain. police bullets.
“A lot of things don’t add up,” her cousin, Tabatha Strother, told NBC News. “But we would have known a lot if the bodycam was on.”
Body cameras have been hailed as a key tool to improve the transparency of police activities and provide crucial information on use of force incidents.
The McCree case, as well as the recent murderous police shootings against Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant, underscore the importance of body camera video for transparency. Of more than 12,000 local police departments across the country, about half have body cameras, but having body cameras doesn’t mean they will be used properly.
Experts say police departments need to implement three basic rules for cameras to be effective: telling officers precisely when to strike the record, making sure they announce they are filming, and clearly describing the consequences if of non-compliance with the rules.
But many of the country’s major police departments do not follow these basic guidelines. Looking at the body camera policies of 28 major police departments across a geographically representative range of U.S. states, as well as Chester’s policy, NBC News found that 45% gave specific instructions on when officers should start police. record. About 41% asked agents to announce that they were recording. And only 34% clearly indicated that there were consequences not to be recorded.
“The cameras aren’t there just to be there,” said Danny Murphy, the Baltimore Police Department’s deputy compliance commissioner.
“They are meant to record interactions to promote accountability and public trust. And departments prepare for failure if they don’t have real policy. “
Murphy knows this firsthand.
He had previously been tasked with reorganizing the New Orleans Police Department after a Justice Department investigation revealed a wide range of issues within it.
Under Murphy’s supervision, the department installed a series of new policies and procedures, including new guidelines on the use of body cameras.
New Orleans Police began to match body camera data with police incident reports, verifying the accuracy of how police interactions with the public were documented. Body camera images were also part of the police department employee review process.
Murphy said the changes have resulted in a sharp increase in the number of officers following proper body camera procedures. Use of force complaints fell 60% – from 45 to 18 – between 2014 and 2018, according to Murphy.
“Body cameras are not a panacea,” he said. “But they are an important basis for reform. Having the cameras is one thing. Making sure you turn on the camera is an essential next step. But then we have to monitor and report on our performance. “
Murphy began working for the Baltimore Police Department in April 2019 under a consent decree to help reform the agency after a Justice Department investigation found the agency was indulging illegal behavior targeting the black community in violation of both the Constitution and the federal government. anti-discrimination laws.
Baltimore’s new body camera policy requires officers to turn them on as soon as possible when responding to an incident.
“On a non-emergency call, our officers are supposed to activate the camera before leaving the vehicle to capture this whole incident,” Murphy said. “On an emergency call, we turn it on the moment we receive the call, whether we have one minute on the scene or five more minutes on the scene.”
This is not what happened in the McCree case.
He arrived at Walmart in Chester before 9 a.m. on November 23, 2019, police said.
McCree picked up the $ 45.87 combination door handle lock and walked out of the store without paying, telling a cashier to “put it on his bill,” police said.
He returned to the store a few hours later and approached a police officer on leave he knew who worked as a security guard at Walmart.
McCree asked how much the lock on the doorknob cost, but was quickly handcuffed and taken to the store’s loss prevention office, state investigators said.
Surveillance footage obtained by NBC News shows McCree loading another security officer off duty, identified as Sgt. Nicholas Harris, then running to the parking lot.
Harris chased McCree, but lost him outside the store.
There are conflicting reports about what happened next.
According to a report from the state’s Law Enforcement Division, which investigated the shooting, McCree, handcuffed behind his back, ran to his car to get a gun. Some witnesses said he fired. Others said they never saw him carry a gun.
The report says Harris told investigators he found McCree across the parking lot near a Taco Bell, where McCree head butted him and then fled. Harris told investigators he had tracked down McCree, but the handcuffed man was now armed, according to the report.
Harris told investigators that he had crossed eyes with McCree and that he could see “that he fully intended to kill me.” Harris fired several shots, then hid behind a car and called for help, stating he was out of ammo.
At around 11:30 a.m., a policeman on duty, Justin Baker, arrived at the Walmart parking lot. As he parked towards the front of the store, he heard a call for “gunshots” on the police radio, according to the state investigation.
Baker got out of his vehicle and walked through the parking lot with his gun in hand. McCree appeared between two cars and Baker opened fire, according to the report. Baker then approached McCree and pulled out a silver pistol from under the front of the body of the fatally injured man, he said.
State investigators will later determine that Baker fired 13 rounds and Harris 11. No shell casings from McCree’s weapon were found.
Baker would go on to tell investigators that McCree had pointed a gun at him and refused to comply with an order to drop his gun.
But there was no way to verify this account – Baker only turned on his body camera after McCree was hit by police bullets.
There are, however, images from Baker’s body camera of the moments leading up to McCree’s death. Equipped with an automatic recording feature, his body camera was set to record the previous two minutes of footage – without sound – once he hit the record.
The Chester Police Department released the body camera footage last June as the case received renewed attention following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody.
But for many, including the McCree family, the distant footage without audio raised more questions than answers.
Eric Piza, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, reviewed body camera footage from McCree’s set for NBC News.
“What struck me most of all was how little I learned about the situation by watching the video,” said Piza, who specializes in analyzing what leads to encounters with the police. .
“We don’t hear any orders from the police or we don’t know if he was ordered to stop and if he was ordered to drop his gun. We don’t know if the officer even saw a gun, ”he added. “All of these things are missing from our review of this incident.”
The South Carolina attorney general declined to press charges against one of the officers, citing self-defense and the defense of others. The American lawyer is investigating the case.
Baker is no longer employed by the department, although police officials have declined to say why. Neither Baker nor Harris responded to requests for comment. Two other off-duty officers who worked security with Harris at Walmart that day also did not respond to requests for comment.
Chester Police Chief Eric Williams was suspended in January and an interim chief was appointed after state investigators opened an investigation into the department’s finances, according to the Rock Hill Herald.
Prior to his suspension, Williams declined to comment on the McCree case to NBC News. He previously defended the officers involved.
“When someone points a gun at you and walks towards you, I don’t know a lot of de-escalation that you can put into that situation but to respond,” Williams said last June.
The City of Chester did not respond to a request for comment. NBC News reviewed the police department’s body camera policy last September, but it is not known if it has been updated.
The Chester Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. Williams also did not respond to a request for comment.
The McCree family, meanwhile, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police.
In an interview with NBC News, McCree’s brother Michael called for strict body camera policies across the country.
“A lot of people’s lives are on the line,” said Michael McCree. “And people are being exploited because the cameras aren’t rolling.”