Out of the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and the intense media scrutiny of police killings came a narrative about a brand-new, magical tool that could miraculously end police brutality by shining a light on law-enforcement misconduct. Somehow, as the public watched the endless stream of cop killings on video, everyone unquestioningly accepted the theory that more video was the answer. According to this universally endorsed hypothesis, if people could see the dashcam, bodycam and cellphone footage, it would curb police brutality.
But they forgot about one thing: the delete button.
As agencies have implemented these new techniques, stories about individual cops and entire departments erasing camera footage have become routine. Here are five egregious examples of how far cops have gone to destroy video evidence.
For years, lawyers and brutality victims wondered why police footage from this one town always seemed to blur or disappear at the exact wrong second. In a sworn affidavit, Reynaldo Chaves, a former Albuquerque, N.M., cop who was designated the department’s “custodian of public records,” testified that the Police Department routinely altered and deleted lapel-camera footage, including two police shootings. In the nine-page document, Chaves revealed an organized effort by the city to destroy evidence of the police shooting of Mary Hawkes that extended all the way up the ladder to the city attorney and police leadership:
21. Specifically, I know that from 2013 to the spring of 2014, the primary person in the Criminal Forensic Unit of the City of Albuquerque Police Department, Frank Pezzano, knew how to encrypt and/or erase Taser lapel camera video with a possible result being lapel camera video would either appear blank, encrypted, altered or corrupted when produced to media and/or attorneys ...
When he learned about this, Chaves said he discovered that the Police Department hierarchy even trained other units, including public information officers and command staff, in how to alter or delete the video. They could make footage too blurry to tell what happened, or remove seconds of video footage.
Chaves says that when he personally told the chain of command and the city attorney about the malfeasance, and the request for video of Hawkes’ killing, the assistant chief and the deputy chief of police explained that he should stall until they could “make it disappear.” The revelations spurred new inquiries into another shooting in which two officers were charged with murder in the shooting of a homeless camper. That case ended in a mistrial when the jury couldn’t decide on a verdict. If only there had been video ...
For his valiant efforts, Reynaldo Chaves was fired.
In one of Chicago’s most famous cases of police brutality, Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 14 seconds in the middle of a busy Chicago street. As soon as the shooting was over, police walked inside a nearby Burger King whose cameras covered the area of the shooting, and asked the manager where they kept the video equipment. When police left after two hours, the manager told everyone that the cops had deleted the evidence and that 86 minutes of footage was missing from the recording.
The city of Chicago denied erasing the video but refused to release the dashcam footage from the city’s cars until a year later, and only after a judge demanded that it do so. By then the city had quietly paid Laquan’s family $5 million but hadn’t filed any charges against the officer who shot him. The city eventually released the police dashcam and Burger King footage, but law-enforcement agencies say that they can find no evidence of tampering.
Still, no one can explain why the restaurant’s cameras recorded every minute before and after that night without a glitch, but mysteriously malfunctioned during the exact time Van Dyke emptied his clip into the teenager’s body.
Levi Frasier was driving down the street when he saw the police detain a couple for what turned out to be a drug arrest, so he pulled out his tablet and started filming. He recorded a cop brutally punching David Flores six times while another cop held him down, trying to get him to spit out what police claim was a sweat sock with drugs in it.
When Flores’ seven-months-pregnant wife tried to intervene, police swept her legs, slamming her to the ground as well. That’s when they spotted Frasier recording them. Officers walked over to Frasier and, according to him, told him they needed his footage for their “lab technicians.” When he refused to hand it over, he said, police added, “We can do this the easy way, or ... we can do this the hard way,” then took the tablet and deleted the video.
But the cops didn’t know that Frasier had backed up the video to the cloud. When Frasier released the video to the public, the police retaliated by releasing Frasier’s arrest record and calling him a “liar.” A few months later, someone discovered that a street camera nearby had video of the episode, and it corroborated everything Frasier had claimed. The second video shows five cops surrounding Frasier after he hid his tablet under some tools. The cops pull him out of the car, use the device and hand it back to him.
Flores ended up in the hospital because of the incident, and cops later arrested Frasier for traffic tickets and he was refused bond, forcing him to spend the night in jail.
One week after the incident, one of the arresting officers who punched Flores and swept the leg of his wife received a raise and a promotion.
What’s worse than a few deleted videos? How about the underreported incidents of police departments deleting thousands of video at a time?
We reported how Columbus, Ohio’s Police Department deleted 100,000 videos, but it turns out that this happens more frequently than you might think. Why waste time altering videos one at a time when you can complete the task in one fell swoop?
Take Oakland, Calif., for instance. Although Police Department files were set to “never delete,” according to an officer, somehow 25 percent of the department’s bodycam footage was deleted after someone checked the wrong box. The footage was never recovered.
Seattle is even worse. While its camera equipment has mysterious glitches that happen to drop frames and freeze more often with certain officers than with others, and occur more frequently in some precincts than in others, the Police Department has had more than one case in which video disappeared. Over the years, the department has lost “tens of thousands” of dashcam videos. In 2008, more than 14,000 clips disappeared in two days. By 2011 the cops had lost more than 45,000 videos in three years. Last July, another 2,283 vanished into thin air.
Despite the cops’ repeated displays of ineptitude, no one has made a formal inquiry into why the citizens of Seattle are cool with these officers carrying guns.
After cops in Garland, Texas, went on a 30-mile, high-speed chase that topped 100 mph, officers testified that they had feared for their lives. However, in a rare twist, it wasn’t the man they were chasing that made them scared; it was one of their own. At the end of the chase, Michael Vincent Allen was dead, shot 41 times by Police Officer Patrick Tuter.
Afterward, Tuter’s fellow officers said that Tuter had fired so many rounds, it scared them, and they didn’t see the part where Tuter claimed the dead man was reaching for something. Tuter also claimed that Allen crashed into his car, which was justification for his fear. Luckily, a man named Mitchell Wallace was asleep nearby, and woke up just in time to capture some of the encounter on his phone, so it wouldn’t be hard to corroborate Tuter’s story and make him a hero.
But the cops confiscated Wallace’s video and still pictures. Wallace says that they erased them, but the Police Department swears that they “got a micro SD card that was removed from the phone and placed that into evidence. ... We didn’t erase anything. We are just awaiting further direction from the court.”
When Tuter went to trial, there was some dashcam footage that showed the victim’s hands were still on the steering wheel when Tuter began shooting and that Allen never hit Tuter’s car (Tuter actually rammed the dead man’s vehicle with his police cruiser). A few people testified against Tuter, but the jury was divided, so the judge declared a mistrial. Wallace’s SD card was never entered as evidence or even mentioned.
We won’t mention the case of Alton Sterling, in which police confiscated a nearby shop owner’s surveillance video, not realizing that he had recorded it on his cellphone. We don’t have time to talk about how police blasted at 22-year-old Raymond Herisse 116 times in Miami, then smashed Narces Benoit’s camera because he recorded the incident, unaware that Benoit had the memory card hidden in his mouth. Then, oops, the police did it again to Sammy Villarreal in Palm Spring, Calif. Then again in Los Angeles—only instead of bullets, they allegedly beat, used a Taser on and suffocated Alex Jimenez to death before erasing his family’s footage. And let’s not get into how 80 percent of cops in Chicago intentionally destroy the audio from dashcam footage.
The belief that cameras will stop police brutality or bring officers to justice has been repeatedly disproved since Rodney King, yet we still advocate for our high-definition, 1080p, lapel-camera lynchings. More cameras might just mean more opportunity to see death on different devices. Even if we put cameras on the dashboards, vests, back seats and poles and in the workplaces of the police to record their actions, they are the ones who get to watch the footage, and as the Latin saying goes: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
“Who will watch the watchmen?”