Last week saw another “use-of-force” arrest caught on video, only a week after a previous video emerged, where the public debate over the very meaning of that phrase continues in its muddled rage.
This time, it was one unarmed man against five officers, all of whom have since returned to work after a short stint on paid administrative leave. Baltimore police insist the officers’ use of taser and baton was justified because the victim, Jamar Kennedy, had been reaching for the cop’s gun.
But then a cell phone video emerged showing Kennedy was just trying to defend himself from repeated blows with the baton.
Although the video doesn’t show Kennedy reaching for a gun, that didn’t stop police from calling a press conference, showing the video to reporters and informing them at one point in the struggle, after they had beaten him repeatedly with batons, that Kennedy ended up on top of an officer and was reaching for the cop’s gun, even though at you can see at 1:00 in this video, nothing can be made out in the video when this was supposedly taking place.
Part of the video can be seen in the above news clip and the Baltimore Sun slowed the video down, removing the audio, to allow readers to decide on their own as to what took place.
On Friday, however, the department’s top brass called another press conference, this time saying they are calling for a United States Department of Justice investigation into the department, considering the latest video is hardly an isolated incident. In fact, the city has dished out $5.7 million in court judgements and settlements in 102 cases since 2011, according to the Baltimore Sun, who conducted a six-month investigation into the department.
But most of those cases were not caught on video, which in this case, is being used by both police and Kennedy’s lawyer that the other side is a fault.
The video is ugly. The unnamed bystander is shooting from the street, about 15 feet away from the officers gathered outside Melba’s Place, a nightclub in Waverly. As the camera moves closer to the fracas, you can see one officer stumbling to the ground, then getting back up. Even closer: You see Kennedy in a white t-shirt, seemingly shoving his way out of the club. Before long he has his hands above his head and an officer is swinging a baton against his midsection. Kennedy keeps moving, and another officer starts swinging at him from behind. As the struggle spills out into the middle of the sidewalk, Kennedy is brought to the ground and held there, still getting hit repeatedly with a baton. (This is the work of three officers: One grappling with Kennedy on the floor, another standing up and holding his arms, and a third hitting him with a baton. Two other officers stand to the side.) At this point, the bystander takes a look around at the crowd that has gathered, and by the time you get another glimpse of Kennedy, the officers have laid off him, and he is sitting on the curb leaning against a BPD cruiser.
What happens next is crucial to the BPD story: An officer approaches Kennedy and reaches toward him, apparently taking something from his pocket, and then offers him whatever she took. According to the police, this was Kennedy’s inhaler, which the officer picked up and offered him when she noticed he was having a hard time breathing.
Hence the official account, which hinges on the notion that police beat Kennedy until he was pacified and not a second longer. After that, they even administered “aid.” Also, the police union says that the use of force was appropriately restrained: The baton blows were directed at Kennedy’s torso and thighs, not his head or knees.
Commissioner Batts is holding up the video as a gesture toward transparency. As the Sun reports: “Batts showed the video to reporters after a television station obtained a copy and questioned police about the incident. ”
I suppose this is a good thing, and the fact that police are sticking with the bystander’s video is significant, especially considering the department’s fraught relationship with citizen journalists. It even got so bad that the federal government issued Letter of Guidance on the issue in 2012. Its complaint: The department’s policy toward spectators was so vague that it was likely to be useless at protecting citizens’ rights, or at helping confused officers to do the right thing.
Under the First Amendment, the letter stated, video recordings of police officers in the pursuit of their duties are a form of protected speech that cannot be suppressed or interfered with—and not just in “public” spaces like sidewalks and city streets, but in any place where the citizen has a right to be. The only exceptions are cases where the spectator is clearly keeping the officer from doing her job—physically, for example. Meanwhile, the circumstances in which an officer may legally seize a spectator’s recording device without a warrant are extremely narrow.
If you had a video of someone getting eaten alive by some archvillain’s Rottweiler, and then said, “I’m gonna go delete this off my phone right now—Eat shit, cops!” then maybe an officer would have a reason to take your phone from you. But only for a short time—for “safekeeping,” let’s call it—while the police got a warrant. Until then, they wouldn’t be able to access anything actually on your phone.
Some two years later, the federal letter hasn’t kept Baltimore police from harassing witnesses and journalists for recording officers at work. Hopefully, this latest incident means that the department is finally coming to grips with the truth: Video recordings by spectators protect the rights and bodies of citizens, not to mention the dignity of the officers who have to work under lazily written (if not criminally negligent) guidelines.
Still, it’s clearly possible to spin a video of an unarmed man getting beaten to a pulp—then gently administered an inhaler, God bless—into a defense of unhinged violence. Just because the video exists doesn’t mean it will say the right thing at the right time.
So, even though Commissioner Batts has wrapped this incident up in his campaign for body cameras (surely a good thing), it’s still important for people to keep their own cameras rolling. The more footage, the more perspectives, the better.
Haru Coryne is a writer based in New Orleans who has worked as a journalist in Chicago and New York City. Expect more PINAC stories from him.