In September of last year, the Baldwin County Commission voted to spend $662,597 for 129 body cameras and related technology for the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO).
Right now, House Bill 6 is already prefiled in the State Legislature, which would make any of the footage taken with that expensive new equipment inaccessible to the public. More or less the same bill was filed last year but didn’t pass, primarily due to the pandemic. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get through this year.
So why is that a big deal? Why does the public or the media need to see police body camera footage?
Some will argue there is no reason, that it’s enough to have law enforcement review footage from times when deadly force is used or where there is controversy — essentially that police should police the police. That might be true in a perfect world, but we’re far from there.
Body cameras have by and large been sold to the American public as a level of “transparency.” Taxpayers plunk down millions of dollars for officers to wear cameras on their uniforms and to have them in their cars. The concept, generally, is cameras further public trust that unlawful or unethical behavior by officers won’t be swept under the rug, while also protecting officers from false claims of brutality or unnecessary use of force.
I’m not sure it’s necessarily worked out that way, though.
These days in Alabama, you can expect a fight if you ask to see body camera footage — unless it exonerates an officer. In those instances, law enforcement agencies often seem to quickly make such footage available. But in controversial cases, you’re talking to the wall.
You may remember in 2016, a Mobile Police Department officer pepper-sprayed a bunch of McGill-Toolen students who were painting the cannon at the Loop after a football victory against Murphy High School — a long-standing tradition. While the department apologized, they refused to release footage of the incident. WALA-TV had to sue and the video was finally released two years later.
Why was that important? Because it allowed the public to see how it all went down and some of the poor decision making by local police.
If you’re a regular reader, you probably know Lagniappe has sought body camera footage from the roadside shooting death of Jonathan Victor by Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Hunady for roughly two years. Victor’s car ran off the road on I-10 on May 12, 2017. He was acting erratically when first responders arrived, refusing to leave his car and telling them to get away. Hunady ended up shooting Victor four times with a high-powered rifle after the man left his car brandishing a cloth item in a threatening fashion and ignored orders not to advance upon officers. The “weapon” turned out to be a fanny pack. Victor was unarmed.
Hunady was cleared by Baldwin County’s Major Crimes Unit (MCU) and the grand jury, and the case was closed. At a press conference announcing the closure of the case, Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack showed bystander cell phone footage of Victor leaving the car and getting shot, but they never really addressed why officers believed Victor was armed in the first place.
If anything, officials attempted to push a narrative Victor’s erratic behavior was the result of being on narcotics. When a reporter asked if he was on drugs, District Attorney Robert Wilters replied that narcotics were found in his system. Later, it was made clearer they found Ketamine in his system, and the head of MCU piped up, saying Ketamine is frequently abused. What they never mentioned is that Victor was administered Ketamine by paramedics after he was shot in an effort to save him, and no other drugs were found in his system.
So what you came away with from the closure of this case is Deputy Hunady did what he had to do because Victor was on drugs and acting like he might have a gun. And that’s where things would stay if Mack and the Baldwin County Circuit Court had their way.
We wanted to know why officers were in such a defensive position when Victor left his car and why they were so convinced he had a gun, but asking for that information was a no-go. We ended up in court and were denied for supposedly not asking the correct agency for the information. We went to the Alabama Supreme Court to argue it should be released and still await a ruling.
But recently MCU was compelled to provide the camera footage and other documentation in a federal suit filed against BCSO by Victor’s mother, and thus Lagniappe has finally been able to review the 911 records and also the body camera footage, which we’ve made available online.
What did we find?
- The 911 operator told BCSO dispatchers that firefighters and paramedics thought Victor had a weapon. Several communications between them indicated he could have a weapon, but no one was certain.
- Firefighters told 911 Victor was talking to himself, covered in blood and in an “altered mental state,” but as in a game of Telephone, the part about his mental state ended up not being conveyed to officers on the scene. Dispatchers also told deputies that 911 reported a weapon was seen on his lap, but no one was sure what kind of weapon.
- When deputies arrived they immediately assumed a defensive position. Hunady took his rifle out when he arrived and started telling firefighters to get behind their truck in case Victor had a gun. He mentioned a couple of times Victor “supposedly” had a weapon, and he warned others about their safety if shooting started.
- We also learned Hunady was never questioned by MCU before he was cleared by the agency and the grand jury.
- We also saw Hunady try to save Victor after the shooting, and it is clear the deputy believed there was a weapon.
What can be learned from all of this is the lines of communication weren’t terribly clear and deputies showed up at the scene under the mistaken belief Victor was armed and appeared to assume he had a gun. Whether those assumptions went too far or were created by communication issues between 911 and BCSO dispatchers will be a central part of the civil lawsuit, I’d imagine.
What also appears completely evident is there was a lot more to the story than Hoss Mack, the district attorney and MCU left us believing after their press conference. It’s easy to see why they didn’t want anyone to get those records or videos. Let’s hope the Legislature doesn’t make it easier for them to get away with it next time.
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