Police move toward transparency by releasing body camera footage but questions about deescalation efforts remain

The Baltimore Police shot a man holding two knives on 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue the day after Thanksgiving and Commissioner Kevin Davis was quick to praise the officers—later identified as Gary Brown and Supreme Jones—for how they handled it all.

"I'm so proud of these officers—the way they responded to the scene, the way that they attempted to de-escalate. Unfortunately [de-escalation] didn't work. And then their use of a non-lethal tool like a taser is something that we train and we expect of our police officers." He added that, "by all accounts, preliminarily," the officers acted properly, and noted that the man, who we'd later learn was 48 years old, did not respond to uniformed officers' "several verbal commands," and that he was shot when a taser "did not take effect."

Body camera footage of the shooting was released nearly a week later—the first time body camera footage has been released by the police since implementation of body-worn cameras went into effect in June (about 600 officers currently have body cameras) and police say, the first time a police shooting has been captured. Also last week: thanks to body camera footage, Baltimore police officer, Donald Gaff, was indicted by a grand jury for assault and misconduct tied to a September arrest.

The police shooting and release of body camera footage show a Baltimore Police Department making efforts to take transparency seriously. However, questions remain about the differing definitions of deescalation and what the police procedure is for talking down a disturbed citizen while protecting the public. The man who was shot on Greenmount and who remains in stable condition at a local hospital, has a history of mental illness. Body camera footage of the incident shows officers screaming at the man to drop his gun as he stood surrounded by police who tased and then shot him in quick succession. (See video at citypaper.com)

Witnesses to the incident immediately questioned police deescalation efforts and held a small protest the day after. During the demonstration, an infant, a child of one of the protesters, stopped breathing and a police officer stepped in and began CPR in an effort to save the baby. The child died, but the police officer's heroic efforts were gratefully noted by protesters.

The events last week marked the latest twist in the unfolding story of policing here in the city, as many residents continue to push for reforms and the police department negotiates compliance with an evolving court-ordered consent decree on the heels of a scathing report on police practices that came out in August.

Frustrated Residents

Not long after the Greenmount shooting and while Commissioner Davis was still talking to the media about the incident, a small crowd had gathered. Lil Boosie's 'Fuck Tha Police' blasted from a car's speakers, residents began yelling at the police, and at least two eyewitnesses questioned the police version of events.

"They didn't reach for a taser, they fired two shots and missed him, then they fired two or more shots," said Lanay, a young woman who works at a store on Greenmount and declined to give her last name. On the heels of incident, she and other bystanders were under the impression that the man had been killed. "Everybody was screaming, 'Don't shoot, don't shoot'," she said. She was also surprised the police started firing in the midst of so many bystanders in the area. "There was people at the bus stop when the man was shot, [the police] didn't care about everybody else at the bus stop."

"I seen the police shoot him two times and I never seen a taser," said an older man who saw the shooting but didn't want to give his name.

As police scuttled around investigating the crime scene in the aftermath, this alternate version of events spread and the crowd yelled at cops on the other side of the yellow tape: "No fuckin' taser, dirty-ass police"; "Body cameras work when we kill y'all, but not when you kill us?"; "The police is a gang"; "Fuck 12 all goddamn day"; "The only way this gonna work is if we clap back against these officers, man."

Eventually, police hosed down the sidewalk in front of the Boulevard Theatre where the man was shot, washing away the puddles of blood and pulling the yellow tape to stuff it in the trash, as a small crowd, led by veteran activist Duane "Shorty" Davis confronted the police about what had happened.

Sgt. Stanley Branford told Shorty that the police had given a statement to the media and they could consult that if they had any questions. "Happy holidays," he added.

"It isn't a happy holiday when y'all shooting us," Shorty told Branford.

An Unexpected Tragedy

At the protest on the scene the day after the shooting, organized by the People's Power Assembly (PPA), the West Coalition, and others, 20 or so activists spoke and chanted. Among the speakers were protest stalwarts Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, a man who died in police custody in 2013; Sharon Black of the PPA; Rev. C.D. Witherspoon; activist PFK Boom, and a few new faces emboldened by what they saw as another egregious police shooting.

Towards the end of the protest, some of its organizers rushed across the street and into the Mamma Lucia Italian Eatery where it was reported that a baby was not breathing and bleeding from the nose. The baby, who was about a month old, belonged to one the activists.

Major Rich Gibson of the Baltimore Police was nearby, on patrol and observing the protests and performed CPR on the baby. Soon, police cars and an ambulance showed up and police and EMTs raced inside as Gibson, distraught, with blood in his mouth, stepped back to let EMT take over. A brief scuffle occurred between some activists who wanted to get in to help and police who were trying to keep the area clear and organized.

A swirl of concern and confusion overtook the crowd. Police officers and those who had gathered for the protests all stood dazed—many with tears in their eyes.

"A police officer came in there and gave her CPR. A white shirt I was video taping earlier, a white shirt we don't get along with—did do his job. He did serve the community today, so I can't beat him up on that one, all right?" activist Duane "Shorty" Davis said wiping away tears. "So the police did do something positive today in the community. I give them a hundred on this one. I am that type of guy, I'll keep it 100. So today they served and protected the community."

Then Shorty walked over to Major Gibson and shook his hand.

"I appreciate you," Shorty said. "[You] did what he had to do for real."

Gibson kindly nodded, still too upset and shaken to speak.

Not long after, Gibson and other officers handed out pizzas they had purchased for the frazzled group of activists and Waverly residents—one small kind gesture, an offering, something, anything.

The baby was taken to the hospital, where it died shortly after, police said.

The Footage

On Wednesday, Nov. 30, nearly a week after the shooting, the Baltimore police released the body camera footage.

"With transparency comes responsibility," Commissioner Kevin Davis said at a press conference. "I want to meet our transparency commitment to the community."

The excerpted footage from two of the officers wearing body-worn cameras depicted the moments before the shooting as officers shouted repeatedly for the man to put the knives down, as they tased and then shot him, and the aftermath where the man was handcuffed and quickly tended to by officers, including, Supreme Jones, one of the officers who shot him, Chief of Media Relations for Baltimore Police T.J. Smith noted.

Whether or not the tasers ever struck the man or if they struck him and just didn't have an effect is unclear. Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson echoed what Davis had said on the day of the shooting—that the tasers had "no discernible effect" on the man. Smith noted that in the winter, as people wear more clothing, tasers will be "less effective," so it's possible that tasers did not work if they did strike the man.

In the video it's also clear that a taser was fired either simultaneously or mere moments before another officer fires his gun at the man. Activists suggest this confounds the de-escalation narrative. That the taser and gun were used almost simultaneously also explains why some witnesses told reporters that no tasers were used. Johnson himself noted that the taser and shots were fired in "fairly close succession," and earlier in the press conference characterized the shooting as happening "immediately thereafter" the taser.

Precisely how long the incident was, from arrival of the first cops to the first shots fired—crucial to fully understanding de-escalation—is unclear.

The man, who had been characterized on the day of the shooting as "threatening" people was now described as "harassing," people at the corner. On the 911 call, which police also released, the caller told the dispatcher that the man had not pulled the knives out on anybody.

In the footage, you can hear the man in the video yell, "I've got one life to live and I'm ready to give it, I did my job." Smith said that the man had a history of mental illness and had attempted suicide before. Davis noted that the man was "apparently suffering from a mental health crisis," and asked, "Where along the line, outside of law enforcement has [he] been failed?"

The Department Of Justice report released in August specifically critiqued the Baltimore police for how it handled those with mental health issues and highlighted a number of incidents where police did little to deescalate. The Justice Department noted that "BPD officers often resort too quickly to using force against individuals with mental health disabilities or in crisis." The report also suggested that the use of tasers is often unnecessary and can even exacerbate a situation: "For many people with mental health disabilities or in crisis, the appearance of officers pointing weapons may convey the impression that they are being threatened or arrested, rather than provided treatment that is intended to help them."

However, most of the examples cited in this section of the DOJ report are references to incidents where the person is unarmed which was not the case with the man on Greenmount who had two knives. Smith said that while officers were equipped with other less lethal means, anything that would move officers into a hand-to-hand combat with the man would be unsafe. "The taser is the one you can use with distance," he said.

Still, the Baltimore police did not send a mental health provider or crisis intervention-trained officer to 33rd and Greenmount on that day. Activists and witnesses questioned whether somebody who didn't have gun needed to be shot or whether drawing a weapon and shooting in a busy Baltimore intersection—the officers missed before finally hitting the man–was in fact safer than a man wielding two knives surrounded by police.

"This was a fluid and dynamic situation," Smith explained in an email. "[It was] certainly not a barricade. When we can push pause and look at it, it's much easier to consider the alternatives that you mention. In fluid and dynamic situations it is quite difficult. In this scenario, this was not a barricade and there was no time for a professional provider to be summoned." He continued: "Consider the barricade from over the summer on Reisterstown Road where a man fired shots at police, a black man. That barricade last for 6-8 hours, negotiators were brought in as well as the man's attorney. Ultimately, he came out unharmed. Totally different scenario when someone is contained inside of a dwelling as opposed to being on the street."

Both the State's Attorney's Office and the American Civil Liberties Union have been opposed to the release of body camera footage before an investigation. The SAO advises against it because it could effect pending cases. David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland said in a statement earlier this year that releasing the footage "allow[s] officers under investigation access to their own body camera footage before being questioned or making a statement about the incident."

Epilogue

Just two days after the release of body camera footage of the shooting on Greenmount, the police released a statement about a separate use of police body cameras. They explained that on Nov. 30, Officer Donald Gaff was indicted by a grand jury for "assault and misconduct in office." This was in connection with an arrest back in September that "showed Gaff using what appears to be unjustified force while making an arrest of an adult male." This was based on the routine review of body camera footage of Gaff that will not be released to the public.

"There is a fine line of balance in releasing videos," Smith wrote in an email. "As we have said from the beginning, we are going to work with the State's Attorney's Office when making determinations to release video. We believe the scenarios are different, however, where lethal force is used."

In January 2015, the Baltimore Sun reported. that Officer Gaff shot and killed Darin Hutchins, a man wielding a knife at a party. He was shot in the chest. Back then, Gaff was described by then-Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriquez as acting "courageously." Rodriquez also said: "I think it's safe to say that through the officer's quick actions and the fact that the officer was deployed here and was able to quickly respond, this scene could've been a lot different."

A few days after Hutchins death, The People's Power Assembly gathered in protest of the shooting and said at the time that some of those at the scene questioned the police account and said the Gaff shot Hutchins quickly, barely giving him any time to drop the knife.

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