Fatal Mistakes: Filming Police Interactions

Across the United States police shootings account for hundreds of deaths every year. PDs train officers to pull the trigger when their life is perceived to be in danger, and unfortunately this sometimes leads to fatal mistakes. To a nervous law enforcement officer reaching into your pocket can be all the justification they need to draw.

This puts people in a difficult predicament. On one hand, legal fees can run into thousands of dollars to prove one’s innocence. Video is the cheapest and most effective way to protect yourself from police misconduct and it just makes sense to film the interactions. On the other hand, this can get you shot.

And the more marginalized the community the worse the situation is. Bad neighbourhoods is where the cops are most on the edge. That is also where people need to rely on video footage more than their lawyers. There are way too many stories of people taking plea deals because they couldn’t afford the legal bills to fight their cases.

In all of the below cases the police have misjudged the situation. If you want to film the police you have to be very explicit about your intention. You don’t only have to worry about doing the right thing yourself, but you have to somehow communicate and anticipate the judgement of the officer that you’re interacting with. It is a matter of life and death. And it’s a difficult thing to do in the real world of biases and fears. 

I don’t have an answer of how to address this. I hope that somewhere between improved police training, more acceptance of video and transparency in interactions, and just better community relations these situations will stop happening. But that’s not the world today.

March 2018 – California
On March 18th, 2018, Sacramento police shot an unarmed man. Stephon Clark was gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard. Before Stephon was shot the police can be heard screaming “Show me your hands!” and then “Gun, gun, gun”. As officers begin arriving on the scene someone says “Hey, mute” and the audio cuts off. The police’s version of the events describes a situation in which the man “turned and advanced toward the officers while holding an object”. This led the police to believe that he was pointing a firearm at them.

December 2018 – Florida
On December 11th, 2018 a police officer in Cocoa, Florida shot a 54-year-old man. Prior to the shooting, Keith Seal called 911 with concerns that his friend was in danger from her husband. When a police officer arrived he saw Seal moving towards him in a “purposeful, fast and aggressive manner” while holding something in his hand. The police officer then stopped, pulled out his gun, and fired multiple shots through his patrol car window. “Where’s the gun? What is in your hand?” Baez is heard asking Seal. “Oh my God, you shot me.” Later on in the recording Officer Baez can be hard telling another officer that “He just started running at me with a black object in his hand”. 

August 2017 – Wisconsin
In August 2017, Milwaukee police shot Jerry Smith Jr. as he was holding his cellphone. Although the victim survived, he is reported to be suffering from permanent paralysis of his right leg due to the shooting. In the video the police can be clearly seen drawing their guns and issuing commands to stop. Smith appears confused, and lowers his phone as the police open fire.

February 2016 – Texas
On February 4th, 2016, Antornie Scott was shot while holding a cell phone outside of his apartment in San Antonio. Officer John Lee told investigators that he thought the phone was a gun and that he fired a shot after Antornie Scott turned towards him.