Videotape never tells the whole story

An unedited videotape may never lie, but it is also always partially blind, often totally deaf, and usually too late to the dance


The use-of-force video from inside the U Me Drink club at the MGM Grand Detroit Casino in Detroit is a good launching point for a discussion about what’s happening to police officers nationwide. As anyone watches an incident play out on nearly every use-of-force video, the viewer is invited — even dared — to draw a conclusion after seeing a snippet of an incident taped from an obscure angle in limited lighting. Conclusions drawn are often jaundiced because videos of a police officer using justified force are often listed on YouTube as “Police Brutality.”

Go ahead, Google it. You will find 19,900 videos on YouTube alone.

You may even be among those 19,900 videos.

The Casino Incident
When the officer in the Casino incident effectively strikes the suspect, he made that decision based on the totality of the circumstances. He based it on the information he received from dispatch, the casino personnel, as well as the personal observations. And he processed all that information in an instant.

It appears that suspect has been a problem for a while, because his actions had already warranted a significant response from security and the police department. The officer also most probably based his decisions on all the actions and statements not seen on the tape as well as body language. After the officer speaks to the suspect, he begins to leave.

Suddenly the suspect stops and turns, indicating non-compliance.

The officer finds himself within intimate distance with the suspect, caused by the suspect’s sudden stop. It is difficult for the officer to step back because of the approaching security. Here, once again, the viewer sees a moment one dimensionally.

The suspect throws one arm up in the air in what would appear to be a pre-attack gesture. What the viewer — whether trained or untrained — is not privy to is what was being said by the suspect. The suspect brings the other hand up and the officer reacts by punching the suspect twice, knocking him unconscious.

The officer immediately moves in to handcuff, which strongly tends to indicate the punches were defensive. The suspect regains consciousness before the handcuffs are applied and begins once again to resist and the officer punches the suspect twice in the side, while another officer pulls the suspect’s legs out (nicely done!), which appears to end the resistance.

Handcuffs are then applied.

Videos: Blind and Deaf
This video demonstrates the problem with video. This one was blind to everything that happened before the camera operator focused on the incident. It was deaf to everything that was said, during the incident. Videos generally give an incomplete picture of what happened, because they are one dimensional and they are blind and deaf to much of what caused an officer to act.

Too often the grainy image captures the punches of the officer, but do not pick up the suspect’s grinding teeth, muscle tension, twitching cheek, or the verbalized promise to do the officer harm. The video does not capture the spittle that may have been launched into the face of the officer as the suspect shouts expletives, threats, or promises that can’t be heard.

Caution to Chiefs and Sheriffs
Do not form a judgment on a snippet of tape when an officer’s career is at stake. When an officer is justified in using force and does so, it often looks intense, even violent. It rarely is a perfect example of the classroom model. Remember the use of force does not have to be perfect, just reasonable.

Do not fall prey to the, “I would not have done it that way,” syndrome. There is no black and white on the street. There are many shades of correct.

Often, a citizen starts taping after something happens, which means most of what happened that is important to the officer involved already took place before the citizen started taping.

Beware of the edited version. Due to “time constraints” the media will edit most tapes appearing on the news. It is not uncommon for them to edit out the suspect’s action and use the officer’s reaction for the Ten o’Clock News. Once again, get the whole story before you pass judgment on the actions of any officer.

Caution to Officers Involved
You need to win the fight on the street, on paper and in the courtroom. You need to win physically legally and emotionally. This is why your reports are so important in the case of the use of force. There is a fine line between battery and a proper use of force. That line is drawn by justification. Officers using force have to describe accurately the amount of force used. It is just as important to go to great lengths to completely detail observations, concerns, fears, which justify the level of force used.

Videotape of incidents rarely — if ever — capture the complete picture. More often than not, they are just a piece of the puzzle. If you are looking at a video, remember that it is a “witness” who is often partially blind, deaf, or showed up late for the call.

About the author

Lt. Dan Marcou retired as a highly decorated police lieutenant and SWAT Commander with 33 years of full time law enforcement experience. He is a nationally recognized police trainer in many police disciplines and is a Master Trainer in the State of Wisconsin. He has authored three novels The Calling: The Making of a Veteran Cop , S.W.A.T. Blue Knights in Black Armor, and Nobody's Heroes are all available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. Visit his website and contact Dan Marcou

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