Three days before Christmas in Columbus, Ohio, a white police officer shot and killed Andre Hill, a 47-year-old unarmed Black man. On Wednesday night, a grand jury charged him with felony murder.
Former officer Adam Coy was also charged with felonious assault and “two counts of dereliction of duty,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said. Coy’s lawyer said he will be pleading not guilty to all of the charges.
The story of Hill’s death is one all too common for Black Americans: On December 22, 2020, the New York Times reported that officers responded to a call “about an S.U.V. parked in a residential area” for around 30 minutes which the caller alleged “had been running for much of that time.” It’s not clear whether the SUV was Hill’s or not, but according to local reporting, the mayor said Hill was “known at the residence where he was shot and was an expected guest.” Within moments of the officers’ arrival, he had been shot multiple times and was pronounced dead less than an hour later at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital.
The story of Coy’s murder charge — in a country where police officers are prosecuted for murder in less than 2 percent of fatal shootings — is less common.
Coy was wearing a body camera, but failed to activate it until after the shooting had already happened. However, the cameras are set to save footage 60 seconds prior to activation. The footage appears to show Hill holding a cellphone in one hand approaching the officers and within moments, being shot by Coy who then yells at him to put his hands out to the side and roll to his stomach. Neither officer moved to administer aid in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
By the following week, Coy had been fired from his job at the Columbus Division of Police.
In a statement last month, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said he was “horrified by the time that passed before any officer provided aid to Mr. Hill.” Ginther also registered concern about Coy failing to turn on his body camera. On January 28, Ginther announced that Chief of Police Tom Quinlan would be demoted, saying that “Columbus residents have lost faith in him and in the division’s ability to change on its own.”
The facts of this case and the body-camera footage appeared so egregious that the chief of police had called the shooting “preventable violence, senseless violence.” In a video statement in December, he also noted that the camera footage allowed him to see the “critical misconduct firsthand.”
It’s an incident where body-worn cameras might well have been the tipping point for accountability. The research on their effectiveness is mixed.
Police body cameras, briefly explained
Body cameras were once heralded by law enforcement reformers as an effective way to hold police accountable for misconduct — and encourage more responsible conduct overall. But the literature on police-worn cameras is disheartening.
A Brookings Institution expert explained that while randomized trials “in American and European police departments found that BWCs reduced the number of complaints filed by local residents against the police ... they showed mixed effects on use of force by and against police officers.” In a major 2017 study conducted in Washington, DC, the researchers found that “the behavior of officers who wore cameras all the time was indistinguishable from the behavior of those who never wore cameras.”
One bright spot in the research is a recent job market paper by University of Chicago economics researcher Taeho Kim; the nationwide study found that the use of these cameras reduced police-involved homicides by 43 percent.
The hope of many activists was that body-camera footage could at least lead to a greater number of convictions, as the use of these cameras has proliferated. But there have been several police killings in recent years of Black civilians in which no one was convicted, notably in the cases of Philando Castile, Michael Brown, and Breonna Taylor.
However, as German Lopez has reported for Vox, there could be some unseen benefits to police-worn cameras: “Even if body cameras ultimately have no effect on, say, use of force, that doesn’t mean they don’t have other hidden benefits in other situations, especially since most day-to-day police encounters don’t involve any use of force.” Lopez writes that it’s possible for departments to use footage in non-lethal incidents to improve police relations with community members similarly to how in sports and medicine, employers can walk “employees through what they could have done better or did well during a specific situation.”
Body cameras are overwhelmingly popular. But for the cameras to increase accountability, Americans have to come to a consensus on when the police shootings of civilians they capture are, if ever, justified.
At least in Hill’s shooting, the footage appears instrumental in leading to an indictment — though, to be sure, the officer has only been charged, and not yet convicted.