When Seattle police shoot someone, the department quickly releases video when it exists. That’s often quelled questions, but not always, as an upcoming inquest shows.
When the inquest into the fatal Seattle police shooting of Che Taylor begins Monday, the jury will ultimately watch patrol-car video of the incident, likely over and over.
It won’t be the first time the public has had the opportunity to view the graphic video, which was released within a day of the Feb. 21 shooting.
Seattle police have become a national leader in the quick release of patrol-car video after officer-involved shootings.
Under Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who was appointed in 2014, the department shifted its approach away from a process that used to take longer, with time lengths varying in each case. Instead, the department has released video shortly after officer-involved shootings, in at least one case on the same day.
“We feel there is a lot of value for the public to see these videos as close to the incident as possible,” Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb explained after the department released video of two police shootings that left two men wounded in September 2015. “We work very hard to release these videos in the interest of transparency and openness.”
Indeed, video has shown officers facing danger in a number of cases, allaying possible questions from the community as to why deadly force was used.
Other police departments around the country have come under fire for delaying the release of video of officer shootings, amid heightened scrutiny in the wake of deadly force used against African Americans.
In September, Charlotte, N.C., police relented to pressure to release body- and dashboard-camera videos of the fatal shooting of a black resident. In November 2015, under a judge’s order, the city of Chicago released shocking police video of a white officer fatally shooting an African-American teen more than a year earlier.
Yet video doesn’t always provide full answers, as the upcoming inquest into Taylor’s death illustrates.
The testimony of the two officers who shot Taylor, cloaked in their perceptions of their need to use deadly force, will play a significant role in the proceeding.
And while the Police Department found the shooting fell within policy, Taylor’s family has called the officers’ actions unnecessary and will be represented by an attorney expected to closely question the officers.
“Video recordings of police actions can be very important tools to help understand who did what to whom, and under what conditions,” Geoffrey Alpert, a professor in the criminology and criminal-justice department at the University of South Carolina, said in an email. “While they are important tools, they are not always the deciding factor.”
Crucial moment obscured
The department unveiled the new policy in July 2015, when it quickly released patrol-car video showing a knife-wielding man advancing on an officer who fatally shot him.
It has continued to do so in a series of officer-involved shootings since then, including a dramatic carjacking and fatal shooting in 2015. In that case, an inquest jury on Jan. 19 found that officers faced an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury when they fired at Raymond Azevedo.
In another case, patrol-car video captured a domestic-violence incident last year in which an officer shot and wounded a man.
As the department moves toward body cameras, the same protocol will apply, according to Whitcomb, the department’s chief spokesman. He noted all relevant video is released, as was the case with surveillance video in the carjacking.
Taylor, 46, an African American, was shot at close range during a confrontation in North Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood. The two white officers who fired told investigators they feared for their lives.
The officers, Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller, in recorded statements, said that shortly before the confrontation, they saw Taylor carrying a handgun in a holster while they were conducting surveillance on a suspected narcotics dealer.
Spaulding and Miller said they recognized Taylor, who had arrived at the scene, as a violent felon who had served prison time.
Taylor was subject to immediate arrest for being a felon in possession of the gun, according to their statements. The officers moved to arrest Taylor after he exited a parked car also occupied by a woman and a man.
As seen on the police video, Taylor was shot as he stood by the open passenger door, facing it, and moved downward as the officers approached giving commands to Taylor to get down and put his hands up.
Both officers said that although they didn’t see a gun before they fired, they saw Taylor reaching for what they believed was a gun.
On the video, this crucial moment is obscured by the parked car.
Detectives later recovered a loaded pistol from the floorboard of the car after it was impounded, according to police.
A firefighter said he had to cut a belt with an empty holster on it off Taylor to provide medical treatment to him, according to police.
Too much information?
The Police Department’s policy of quickly releasing video of such incidents has been widely accepted. But criticism was directed at the department over releasing detailed information about Taylor’s criminal history in addition to the video.
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In a statement four days after the shooting, the Public Defender Association said it understood Taylor’s felony-conviction history might be germane to the officers’ explanation that they approached Taylor because of their suspicion he was a felon in unlawful possession of a firearm.
“But the details of that history are not relevant to the lawfulness of the shooting,” the statement said, referring to the department’s disclosure that Taylor’s record included convictions for assault, robbery and rape.
“It has been a long-standing practice locally and nationally to tarnish the character of individuals killed by police by releasing the criminal history of the person killed quickly, which can subtly or not so subtly change the frame of the discussion from the core question of whether the force used was lawful and appropriate,” the statement said.
Whitcomb said police officials are “hypersensitive to not trying to get people to formulate an opinion.”
The additional details released about Taylor’s criminal history represented one instance where that occurred, and the detailed information was meant to try to explain what the officers knew about Taylor’s violent history going into the contact, Whitcomb said.
In general, the department is committed to taking great care to avoid divulging specific criminal history in the future, he said.
The inquest will seek to determine causes and circumstances of the shooting, during a court proceeding conducted before a jury. It is customary for deaths that involve on-duty law-enforcement officers in King County.
After watching video, considering evidence and listening to testimony, jurors will answer questions to determine factual issues involved in the case; they won’t determine civil or criminal liability.
Videos ‘are not perfect’
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs hasn’t discussed how quickly such video should be released, shunning hard rules and leaving it to local agencies, legal advisers and community members to craft policies, according to the organization.
Seattle police take a broad view of their disclosure obligations, pointing to a 2014 state Supreme Court decision that the department violated state public-records law by withholding dashboard-camera video requested by a television station.
“We choose to err on the side of transparency whenever possible,” Rebecca Boatright, the department’s senior legal counsel, said in an email.
The Washington State Patrol takes a different stance, saying a state statute requires it to withhold video until any criminal or civil litigation is completed.
“The Washington State Patrol believes in transparency and releasing dash cam videos as quickly as judicially possible,” Kyle Moore, a patrol spokesman, said in an email.
Boatright said the statute “has not kept up with the times or technology” and is open to wider interpretation.
Some departments don’t face the question because they don’t use dashboard cameras, such as Tacoma police, and sheriff’s offices in Snohomish County and King County. Bellevue has a pilot program, with two patrol cars equipped in anticipation of a full rollout this year.
Alpert, the South Carolina professor, favors the quick release of police video in officer-involved shootings: “for transparency — unless there is a compelling and justifiable reason not to release it,” he wrote in his email.
But it shouldn’t be viewed as conclusive, he added.
“For example, college and professional football use multiple cameras and depending on the angle, direction and actions of the players, these videos, examined by professionals in the booth cannot always tell if a touchdown was scored, where the ball should be placed or if a foul was committed,” Alpert said.
“While these cameras have helped us all understand the actions better, and have resolved some of the conflicts, they are not perfect,” he wrote. “The same must be said about videos of police action. Even with multiple body cameras and smartphone videos, it is not clear what an actor did and what was the result. We have to be careful to understand these are tools not adjudicators.”