Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Facts, Values, and Cameras: Police Use of Lethal Force

The Oakland police is being sued for the killing of Demouria Hogg. The Huffington Post reports:

Oakland firefighters found an unresponsive man in the driver's seat of a BMW parked near a highway off-ramp one morning in June. They called the police department, saying a handgun was on the passenger's seat.
Police tried for an hour to rouse Demouria Hogg, 30, by using loudspeakers and firing beanbag rounds at the car. Hogg didn’t budge, police said. Hogg finally stirred when police shattered a passenger-side window with a metal pipe. It would be the last movement of his life.
One officer used a Taser on Hogg while another fatally shot him.  
It’s unclear what happened when Hogg awoke. Police said “a confrontation occurred.” An attorney representing the officer who fired the fatal shot said Hogg reached for the handgun.

This is an interesting case. What with the intense politicization of police use of force and partisan heated proclamations of value over fact, we tend to forget the standard in Tennessee v. Garner, and the fact that it's an objective one: force is justified when a reasonable officer would have probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others. The fact that the suspect had a gun nearby (rather than, as in so many cases, an innocent item that officers claim appeared to be a gun) does not automatically exonerate the officers, but with the suspect dead, there's little to contradict their version that he reached for it. The strange part: the suspect was apparently sound asleep in the car for a long time before the police shot him.

But the fact that the officers, like all Oakland police officers, had lapel cameras that captured the event, makes things even more interesting. Note this bit:

“The video absolutely supports the officers,” said attorney Stephen Betz, who represents the female cop who shot Hogg, whose name hasn’t been released. “But if you’re suspicious of the police, the video that I saw doesn’t necessarily show what happened inside the car.”

Betz has hit on an inconvenient truth for those who support openness, disclosures, and social media activism: Cameras do not show "the truth". Footage of cameras is often grainy and confusing, especially if people are running or moving quickly. Moreover, to a disturbing degree, cameras show what we want to see.

In 2007, the Supreme Court decided a case called Scott v. Harris. Harris sued police officers for a car chase that ended in an accident (the police basically ran Harris off the road and he became paraplegic.) The jury awarded Harris compensation, but the Supreme Court took it back, relying on camera footage. Justice Scalia wrote:

There is, however, an added wrinkle in this case: existence in the record of a videotape capturing the events in question. . . The videotape tells quite a different story [than Harris's version]. There we see respondent’s vehicle racing down narrow, two-lane roads in the dead of night at speeds that are shockingly fast. We see it swerve around more than a dozen other cars, cross the double-yellow line, and force cars traveling in both directions to their respective shoulders to avoid being hit.6 We see it run multiple red lights and travel for considerable periods of time in the occasional center left-turn-only lane, chased by numerous police cars forced to engage in the same hazardous maneuvers just to keep up. Far from being the cautious and controlled driver the lower court depicts, what we see on the video more closely resembles a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort, placing police officers and innocent bystanders alike at great risk of serious injury. Respondent’s version of events is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him.

But is it? Dan Kahan, Dave Hoffman, and Donald Braman decided to find out. They asked hundreds of respondents to view the following video and answer a series of questions:

Kahan et al. found considerable variation in the respondents' assessment of the danger Harris posed and on the appropriateness of police conduct here. More disturbingly, they found that these assessments strongly correlated with people's political values.[1]

I haven't seen the tape that depicts Hogg's killing, but I don't know that a tape alone can condemn or exonerate anyone. This is, perhaps, why the Oakland police is trying different strategies with the footage: a few months ago, they showed tapes to the media, then to the public. The plethora of responses they are getting proves Kahan et al.'s point: the camera is not an undisputed arbiter of the justification of police action, and what it shows can be interpreted in dramatically different ways. On the other hand, not releasing the footage gives rise to serious concerns that the police has something to hide; moreover, there are instances in which the police officer's version of the events clearly contradicts the footage, such as in the killing of Samuel DuBose.

So, what is the police to do? It seems like the camera technology's availability has preceded any law or policy on such matters. This coming Friday, the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal is hosting a one-day symposium on policing, in which we will have a panel on body cameras including the Oakland Chief of Police. I very much look forward to hearing from him, and from two public defenders who have confronted issues involving lapel cameras, about the proper policies to handle such incidents and the evidentiary value of the cameras--in a way that respects people's diverse values, but does not tout them over the important inquiry about the facts.

[1] by the way: almost every year I replicate this study with my Criminal Concentration students, except I add a question to the demographic part: I ask them whether they want to be prosecutors or defense attorneys. The answers are independent of people's political perspectives--most, albeit not all, my students are liberal, vote Democratic, and self-identify as progressive--and, unsurprisingly perhaps, people's assessment of the video, including of facts such as Harris's speed, wildly diverges based on their future career choice.

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