Two things may be said about police body cameras. One is that they bring into focus the messy and unpredictable world of law enforcement.
As Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown put it at a press conference, “We go at some of the worst times in people’s lives.”
The other is that, dramatic though they may be, such videos seldom tell the entire story of what happened.
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Which brings me to a violent confrontation between a Salt Lake Police officer and a 43-year-old woman, video of which suddenly has surfaced nearly two years after it happened.
The video clearly indicates a moment of intense stress. The woman appears to be intoxicated and, according to police who said it wasn’t their first encounter with her, she was having one of several bad days.
But as to telling the whole story, while the video also represents only a snippet of time in a complicated encounter, it provides enough for us to see an officer behaving in a way that could be generously termed troubling.
The video is from the body cam attached to officer Tyler Reinwand, who has since retired from the force. It shows him apparently either pushing or punching Michelle Siguenza Anderson to the ground after she reportedly spit in his face. While she moans in agony, her face on the ground, the officer can be heard calling her vulgar names, including terms referring to parts of her anatomy.
Anderson’s 9-year-old daughter is watching the entire scene unfold. A touching portion of the video shows an officer removing the little girl’s playthings – a doll, a light saber, etc. — from the hood of a squad car.
The encounter may not be the only traumatic moment in this girl’s life. Anderson currently is charged in a separate incident in which she allegedly threatened the girl with a hammer and tried to choke her.
That’s part of the rest of the story, and yet it’s hard to conjure an acceptable excuse for an officer using the vulgar language of uncontrolled anger, or for getting physical with someone who is handcuffed.
As Chief Brown said, this “doesn’t look good.”
But if it weren’t for a body camera, it wouldn’t look like anything at all, even two years after the fact.
America is on edge right now when it comes to allegations of police brutality. The slaughter of police officers in Dallas demonstrates what can happen when emotions run ahead of justice, and when frenzied minds are ignited.
The two incidents that preceded Dallas — police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana — look so bad on their face it’s hard to think of ways in which a complete set of facts could tell a different story. And yet a nation of laws has a duty to wait for those facts.
These incidents, as well, might have remained hidden without video shot by witnesses.
Like it or not, we live in a time when virtually any incident can be recorded and widely disseminated. The result is a greater level of accountability, but it also seems to be less patience for the rules and procedures that justice requires.
A recent study at Arizona State University found that body cameras do make police more accountable, even if they also make them less likely to let people off the hook for committing what the video clearly shows are infractions.
That doesn’t explain the Salt Lake City case, or the way the video was hidden in the vault — something that clearly bothers Chief Brown. Even though he wasn’t the chief back then, he has done a good job handling this embarrassment, pledging a full investigation and offering ways to ensure future such incidents don’t get lost in the 440 gigabytes of video the department collects each week.
Clearly, some officers, like many criminals, are not deterred by video cameras. Clearly, recordings from these cameras have ignited a frightening level of unrest nationwide. Clearly, they can reveal messy human weaknesses on all sides of confrontations.
And, just as clearly, cameras aren’t going away.
The hope is all of this eventually will make the nation, and its justice system, better, even as it makes many people less patient for real justice.