In the past few years, shaky, grainy videos of police encounters have become staples of the news – and a powerful tool to shape public opinion.
On April 25, Ackim Scott called his aunt in a panic. The 28-year-old had smoked some bad weed for his birthday, he told her, and feared he was losing his mind. After the short conversation, the aunt contacted a posse of relatives who headed over to his unit on Lovers Lane Road to check in on him. There were multiple red flags, perhaps the largest that Scott had turned 28 almost a week prior, on April 19.
Paranoid and despairing, Scott refused to open his door and barricaded himself inside with his .45-caliber handgun. After a contingent of Milwaukee police officers arrived and attempted to negotiate with him for several hours, he yelled and fired the gun, prompting a group of four cops to force their way inside with a riot shield.
Scott pointed the .45 at the three unshielded officers and pulled the trigger. It jammed.
An officer armed with a rifle fired at Scott twice, dropping him to the ground. By the time he had recovered enough to speak to a detective, his story had become otherworldly: Someone came into his apartment, and all he saw were three lights (apparently those carried by the officers) and a shield, moving in on him. He tried to shoot the lights.
Prosecutors charged Scott with attempted first-degree homicide, meaning he’s accused of actively trying to kill a human being, not just darken some lights. A jury trial scheduled for February will weigh the issue: Was this a man lost in another world, or someone fully planted in reality, who saw a human threat and fired a gun at it?
For good reason, body cameras have been touted as a means for increasing police accountability, but recent cases and research have shown that their net effect may be to empower cops by providing a record more believable than their own word. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just changes the playing field. For example, the death of veteran MPD Officer Michael Michalski was captured on his own body cam and others in July when he and a group of officers followed a wanted suspect to a house on the North Side.
Afterward, officers arrested the alleged shooter, Jonathan Copeland Jr., and drove him to a hospital to be checked out, with their cameras still running. He tells one of them, referring to his gun, “I will take it off your waist and put one in the back of your head, too” – a self-incriminating statement that makes it that much harder for Copeland’s defense to provoke reasonable doubt. While a homicide trial is scheduled for February, the recording builds a stronger case that could make a plea deal more attractive.
“Body cameras are just a tool,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said during the trial of MPD Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown, accused of murdering 23-year-old Sylville Smith. It’s a tool that’s easily slanted, in certain cases, to back up an officer’s version of what happened. In cases of blurry or inconclusive camera footage, a law enforcement expert is sometimes called to parse out what the precious frames mean.
In Heaggan-Brown’s case, the assessment by force instructor Robert Willis, an active officer himself, cleared Heaggan-Brown of wrongdoing. At one point in the video, after the first of two shots, Smith is seen lying on the ground and moving his arms. As the left hand moves down to his waist, Willis became concerned. “This is bad,” he said.
As much as anything, that stray left hand captured on video was used to justify the killing of Smith. The alternative was Heaggan-Brown or his partner testifying, “His left hand moved,” but given how high-profile the case had become – and given the sex crimes charged against the former – a video was much harder to impeach. To the untrained eye, it was a shaky jumble, but with the right expert, it could be made to tell a story.
A study by the Urban Institute of MPD’s body camera program during its initial rollout found that it appeared to have had no significant effect on officers’ use of force, arrests or traffic stops. Subject stops – essentially a traffic stop without a vehicle – went down, however, along with citizen complaints, but it’s not clear if that’s from better behavior. According to Daniel Lawrence, one of the study’s authors, officers said the existence of body camera footage may discourage some people from filing complaints who might have otherwise done so. Typically, the person would enter a police station, learn of the video’s existence from an officer, and also learn, among other things, that filing a false complaint is a crime.
This isn’t the only study to find that body cameras have a negligible effect on police behavior, including a major study in Washington, D.C., released in 2017. Many cities are now evaluating their programs in the wake of a federal grant that hastened rollout in Milwaukee and elsewhere after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
With incidents involving police captured on grainy video, a jury can be taken right to the decisive moment, in some ways pre-empting the normal back-and-forth of the judicial process.
SINCE ROLLING OUT in late 2016, footage from the Milwaukee Police Department’s body cameras have already proven pivotal in a number of high-profile cases.
SHOOTING OF MICHAEL MICHALSKI
Cameras have captured tragedy after tragedy, but the ambush and killing of Officer Michael Michalski hit home for the department. After Michalski spots the trap laid for him, the video blurs and goes dark as he falls over his camera.
TASING OF STERLING BROWN
In January, a scrum of officers question the Bucks rookie, who is pushed down and tased outside a Walgreens. Chief Alfonso Morales released the body cam footage in May and apologized for this exaggerated response to a traffic offense.
SHOOTING OF SYLVILLE SMITH
While still in the process of launching department-wide, body cameras worn by Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown and another officer captured the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith, 23, in a West Side yard after he tossed a handgun over a fence – an incident that sparked unrest in Sherman Park. Ultimately, the question became how to interpret the jerky, confusing video, and Heaggan-Brown was acquitted of a homicide charge.
Still, there are ways that body cameras do ratchet up accountability of the police. Last year, the recorded tasing and arrest of Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown led to a forceful backlash at least in part because the conditions were right: Events unfold relatively slowly in the video, and when the tasing occurs, it fills the screen. It’s hard to mistake what’s happening, and many viewers had a gut-level reaction.
The body cameras around him captured 30 frames every second, but the task of deciding the truth, what had really happened, came later.