Video shows everything. And nothing

As federal law enforcement increasingly adopts body-mounted video, footage from local police is starting to show both the potential and the limitations of this ...

These particular police gunshots — four of them — occurred in Fresno, California. Perhaps you’ve seen the widely-posted during this period of heightened sensitivity to police and gunfire. In this case, the video didn’t come from a shaky, blurry cell phone but rather from the body cam of one of the officers shooting.

As federal law enforcement increasingly adopts body-mounted video, footage from local police is starting to show both the potential and the limitations of this technology.

What a phenomenon of our age … our ability to casually witness, over and over if we wish, acts of violence that until now we only viewed only in simulation on television and movies.

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In the Fresno case, the cams produced fairly clear video. They show the entire incident. A pickup truck roars out of an intersection. A few minutes later, a 19-year-old white male is incapacitated by police gun fire, en route to dying in surgery. You see nearly everything except what is going on in the heads of the participants. From total clarity comes total ambiguity.

You could see this difficult-to-watch video and come to any of several incompatible conclusions. The police were demonically overreacting to a kid laying a little rubber down with his jacked-up truck, itching for a chance to shoot. Or, golly, that 19-year-old man seemed to ask to get shot by not showing his hands, not dropping the object in his hand, refusing to lie down, continuing to reach into his waistband after the first two shots. And again after the third. Stupidity? Confusion? Intoxication? Suicide?

You can hear the victim say — while walking towards the officers — “I hate my [expletive] life.” That’s highly ambiguous too. Every 19-year-old hates his or her life at times. Yet he didn’t ask for help from the officers but rather seemed to toy with their repeated requests to lie down and keep his hands in the clear.

The tape could show police following procedures completely, repeatedly trying to get the situation under control, feeling threatened by the strange actions of the person not quite in custody, not quite obeying the officers’ increasingly intense-sounding orders. You could ask, how come police procedures are so biased toward the assumption that every situation is potentially lethal? You could conclude this was a complete anomaly. After all, police make more than 26 million traffic stops every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Washington Post reports, police have fatally shot people in 522 of all encounters through mid-July — an insignificant number statistically, although not in human terms.

Police body cams could deliver one sure benefit, namely a somewhat better ability to evaluate and judge each situation on its own merits, and not by preconceived biases. But they only show actions, not motivations.

Also judging from the Fresno footage, police forces need to get the mounting point and angle of vision coordinated. These two videos show that neither cop had the camera positioned for optimal results, that is, an unencumbered view of the situation. In one angle, the officer’s earlobe repeatedly blocks the scene. In the other, the suspect and the interaction with him are often out of the frame.

I sense this technology will grow more important as more footage comes under analysis and situational responses become more finely tuned. But at least get the cameras aimed right. Given the occurrences throughout the nation in recent weeks, law enforcement and those of us who support it welcome any useful tool.

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