With first-degree manslaughter charges filed against the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, there is now a clear, recurring theme in police shooting cases: Video — whether from a body, cellphone, or dashboard camera — truly works for holding police accountable.
Now, video doesn’t always work perfectly. There are still issues with how the public can access video maintained by the police — like in North Carolina, where police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, but have so far refused to release video of the shooting. And there are valid concerns surrounding privacy, how and when officers can turn cameras on, cases where cameras don’t work or aren’t at the right angle, and more.
But when the camera is on, the public can see the situation unfold, and investigators can examine the video as evidence, there have now been multiple cases in which the video seemingly led to charges against a police officer — a real attempt to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing.
Video led to prosecution in several police shooting cases
In Crutcher’s case, the video showed officer Betty Shelby shooting a man who was unarmed and seemed to be doing nothing wrong at the moment he was shot. Shelby claimed that Crutcher was refusing to follow orders and tried to reach into his car — for what she feared was a weapon — when she opened fire. But the video, from a helicopter and dashboard camera, tells a very different story: Crutcher had his hands up until at least seconds before the shooting, and his car windows were closed, making it impossible for him to reach into his car. And even if he had, investigators later found no firearm on Crutcher or in his vehicle.
A prosecutor saw that footage and decided there is enough there to file first-degree manslaughter charges.
Before Crutcher, there was Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati in 2015. A University of Cincinnati police officer stopped DuBose for not having a front license place, and the stop ended with DuBose dead. Officer Ray Tensing said that DuBose had tried to flee the scene and almost ran over him. But the video, from a body camera, shows a different story: The car barely moved at all, and Tensing was never in serious threat of being run over.
Not only did Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a Republican, file charges against Tensing, but he strongly condemned the shooting. “This is the most asinine act I've ever seen a police officer make,” he said. “It’s an absolute tragedy in 2015 that anyone would behave in this manner. It was senseless.”
Before DuBose, there was, also in 2015, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. There, officer Michael Slager claimed that Scott, a 50-year-old black man, had tried to steal a Taser and use it on the officer. But video from a bystander showed Scott haphazardly running — very, very slowly — from Slager, and Slager firing at least eight shots at Scott’s back. After the shooting, Slager walks over to Scott’s dead body and appears to plant his Taser near Scott, apparently in an attempt to corroborate his cover-up story.
The case was the first time a high-profile police shooting led to murder charges since the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
And before those shootings, there was Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Officer Jason Van Dyke and his fellow cops claimed that McDonald lunged at them with a knife. In reality, the 17-year-old boy was walking down a street — seemingly oblivious to what’s going on around him — and Van Dyke opened fire when McDonald was about 10 feet away. Van Dyke not only shot McDonald from that distance, but continued firing for 13 seconds after McDonald fell to the ground.
After a year-long legal battle forced the release of the dashboard camera footage, the local prosecutor filed murder charges against Van Dyke, and Chicago’s police chief is now trying to fire four other officers accused of lying about the shooting.
Time and time again, the video won the day. In the past, the public and prosecutors would have had to rely on a police officer’s account and maybe some eyewitnesses’ testimony to decide whether a shooting was justified — and almost always side with police in such cases, because the public by and large saw cops as trustworthy. Now, we have video to show just how dishonest police can be after they kill someone.
It’s unclear whether the charges will lead to convictions, but the charges alone matter
Still, these are charges. The police officers involved in these shootings will still need to go to trial and be convicted before they’re truly punished for the shootings.
Will all of this lead to a conviction? If history is any indication, the chances are low. As David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Amanda Taub for Vox, “When an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”
The data bears this out: The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
But video evidence has proliferated over the past few years, thanks to cameras on mobile devices and more police departments adopting body cameras and dashboard cameras. Video managed to lead to charges in cases where there likely wouldn’t have been charges before. Maybe it will lead to convictions where there wouldn’t have been convictions before. (A caveat: We don’t yet know the exact effect of video on whether police face charges or convictions, largely because the video trend is early and we have no idea how many police shootings there were in the past.)
Still, the charges are, by themselves, important. They signal to police that prosecutors and the public are more serious about holding them accountable. After generations of minority communities fruitlessly complaining about police misconduct, video evidence seems to be leading the broader public and officials to realize that there truly is some legitimacy to those complaints.