George Floyd anniversary: Release police body camera videos of deadly arrests
From a video provided by Darnella Frazier, then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020. Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd on April 20, 2021. (Photo: Darnella Frazier via AP)
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The official police version of George Floyd’s death, after he was murdered on May 25, 2020, by an officer who kneeled on the Black man’s neck for more than nine minutes, was a mockery of what actually happened.
“(Floyd) was ordered to step from his car,” according to the news release from the Minneapolis Police Department. “After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect in handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. … He died a short time later.”
This sanitized version might have been all the public ever knew about Floyd’s death at the hands of now-former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, but for the honest imagery of a video taken by Darnella Frazier, 18.
‘Lord Jesus! OK, I’m sorry. I’m sorry’
Once Chauvin was charged and inside a courtroom, there was even more imagery. This time, the damning footage was from police body cameras.
Those hard-to-watch views of Floyd’s death were not made public until Chauvin’s murder trial, 10 months after Floyd died.
Sometimes, footage from police body cameras remains out of view for even longer.
Another Black man, Ronald Greene, died during his arrest by Louisiana state troopers in 2019. Greene’s family was originally told he was killed in a traffic accident. But police body camera footage leaked this month to The Associated Press showed his vicious beating by officers as he pleaded for mercy: “OK, OK. Lord Jesus! OK, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
False narratives from officers
It isn’t that police lie every time they interact with citizens. That’s hardly the case. But there are clearly instances of false narratives from officers, particularly in sensitive cases where someone is killed, cases where victims are disproportionately Black.
This has contributed greatly to a widening chasm of distrust between law enforcement and the minority communities police are sworn to protect and serve.
One way to begin bridging this divide would be for police agencies to adopt as policy the rapid release of body camera footage, especially in cases involving a death.
Use of body cameras by all police
The latest federal statistics on the use of police body cameras date to 2016. But at that time, 80% of the nation’s largest police agencies employed them. A major hurdle for other departments was cost. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, passed by the House of Representatives in March and pending before the Senate, would promote and fund the use of body cameras by all police.
The video from cameras mounted on police cars or worn on uniforms can be jittery, fast-paced and even confusing. But they are unvarnished, if uneven, versions of what happened. And the rightness of releasing them can not only help hold police accountable in the most egregious cases, but can also fuel healthy debate and discussion in cases where the appropriate response is less clear.
Take, for example, when the police in Columbus, Ohio, quickly made public body camera footage showing an officer shooting to death 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was wielding a knife. It appeared to verify the police account that she was dangerous. But it also raised valid questions whether the officer could have taken less lethal steps to de-escalate a situation where Bryant felt threatened by others.
Even more to the point was a North Carolina prosecutor’s decision to release body cam footage of the fatal police shooting last month of Andrew Brown, yet another Black man killed during an arrest. Brown was shot to death as he was trying to drive away from police, and the prosecutor said the officers were justified because the car was a potentially deadly weapon. Law enforcement experts have argued that the video is hardly conclusive in supporting the prosecutor’s conclusion, and there is now increased pressure on federal authorities to intervene. That’s a good thing.
Critics say that routinely releasing such footage can bias a potential jury. But this is far outweighed by the obligation of law enforcement agencies to be transparent and accountable to the public they serve.
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