Police Shooting Videos Don’t Tell The Whole Story In Criminal Cases


The recording of Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 times at a teen suspect is the latest in a catalog of videos that have put police use-of-force under intense scrutiny. The Los Angeles Times says that over 18 months, surveillance feeds and cellphone recordings have led to protests and criminal charges after officers used force against civilians in New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland and South Carolina, among other places. The videos can be visceral in nature, showing what activists consider clear-cut misuse of force by police. Law enforcement experts warned that recordings can paint an incomplete picture. “Knowing what happens on video after it happens is totally different than knowing what the cop was thinking and what he will say he was thinking,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former prosecutor now on the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The video obviously could be damning in terms of a criminal case, but the ultimate question is, is there malice towards the kid? Is it totally unwarranted under any view of the evidence? The video does not speak for itself.”

Experts said the Chicago recording, at first glance, showed a shooting that seemed excessive. Ed Obayashi, a California sheriff’s deputy who works as an attorney on use-of-force cases, said the fact that Van Dyke’s partner did not fire his weapon could prove critical. “The testimony of that officer is going to be very, very compelling about why he did not perceive a deadly threat,” Obayashi said. Other experts could not understand how Van Dyke could perceive the teenager as a threat. “I don’t see a justification for deadly force. He is walking away from the officer,” said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina expert on police force. Sid Heal, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s commander and force expert, questioned both Van Dyke’s decision to fire and the prosecutor’s murder charge. “It’s going to be tough to make a case that he arrived at a scene and decided in only 30 seconds to premeditatedly kill the suspect,” Heal said. “If the defense can make any valid case for self-defense, manslaughter seems more appropriate.”

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