Video has become the strongest witness for the prosecution in police shootings

Collaborator: The Frontier
Published: 04/02/2021, 7:41 AM
Edited: 04/10/2021, 9:50 PM
Written By: Dylan Goforth (TULSA, Okla.) Stavian Rodriguez’s life had, by all accounts, gone off the rails. Many teenage boys rebel and get into trouble. But few 15-year-olds grab a gun and attempt to rob a convenience store. But last November, Rodriguez walked into an Okie Gas Express just off Interstate 240 near the southern edge of Oklahoma City. Officers quickly responded and eventually covered the tiny building from all angles. Body camera footage released by the police department shows officers crowding behind gas pumps, trying to coax Rodriguez out, telling him “Nobody has to get hurt, just show us your hands.” Surveillance footage showed Rodriguez climbing out of the building’s drive-through window — the store’s owner had locked the exit doors, and this was the only way out. Once outside, the officers’ voices grew more urgent. Where before they had been trying to calmly talk Rodriguez out of the building, now they were yelling commands at him to get on the ground and show his hands. Video showed Rodriguez lift his hoodie and shirt up, take the gun delicately between his thumb and forefinger, lean forward and drop it on the ground. He began to reach for a pocket where police later found a cellphone, perhaps in order to place it on the ground and make it obvious that it was not a weapon. One officer, Sarah Carli, fired a round from a less-lethal weapon. Five more officers fired their handguns. Attorneys for Rodriguez’s surviving family members called it a “sympathy shoot,” a phenomenon where one officer fires a weapon and others nearby fire in response. Rodriguez’s body can be seen going limp, then falling violently backwards — his head violently struck the side of the building and he rolled over onto his side, moaning. Police shot Rodriguez 13 times. He was pronounced dead in an Oklahoma City hospital. Police initially said in statements to the media that Rodriguez “held a pistol and did not follow officers’ commands.” But surveillance footage showed the teenager carefully dropping the handgun to the ground before the shooting. Prior to the introduction of body-worn cameras, prosecutors and the public had to largely rely on police accounts of fatal shootings. Early information the Oklahoma City and The Village police departments released to the public about three police shootings in the past year where officers were later charged differed in key details from what body camera footage showed when it was later released, according to video, press releases and other public records reviewed by The Frontier. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater told The Frontier that the new availability of surveillance, cell phone, and body camera footage has made a difference in how he reviews police shootings. The Oklahoma City Council voted to implement police body cameras in 2015, but the program wasn’t fully implemented until 2018, after the local police union raised concerns video footage could be used against officers by their supervisors. Oklahoma City police officers have shot at least 29 people since 2018, when The Frontier began tracking police shootings across the state, by far the most of any agency. At least 19 of those 29 shootings have been fatal, records show, also the most in the state. (The Tulsa Police Department, which has shot and killed 11 people during that time frame, is the only other agency in the state with more than 10 killings.) About half of the charges filed against Oklahoma police officers who’ve shot a suspect in the last five years have been filed in the last two months. Earlier this month, Prater filed charges of first-degree manslaughter, a crime that carries a minimum conviction of four years in prison, against the five officers who killed Rodriguez. Officers charged were Corey Adams, Jared Barton, Brad Pemberton, Bethany Sears, and John Skuta. Adams shot and killed a man named Tony Mathis in 2018 following a similar armed robbery attempt, Frontier records show. That shooting was ruled justified. Sears had also been involved in a deadly police shooting in 2017, according to a lawsuit filed by Rodriguez’s mother against the police department. The charges filed against those five officers came less than a month after Prater charged Oklahoma City police Sgt. Clifford Holman with first-degree manslaughter following the killing in December of Bennie Edwards, a 60-year-old homeless man who struggled with mental illness. Prater, who said in an interview with The Frontier that he had filed charges against nine officers with “some degree of homicide” during his 14 years of reviewing police shootings, said the prevalence of video evidence has changed the way he handles these cases. “Body worn cameras, dash mounted cameras, private security cameras and private cellphone video provide another piece of evidence to consider when reviewing any case, whether the evidence is used to determine charging a civilian who has allegedly committed a crime or an officer who has been involved in a use of force incident,” Prater said. “This video evidence was mostly nonexistent in the past.” In response to The Frontier’s questions about the consistency of details of shootings police have released to the media, Oklahoma City Police Department Master Sgt. Gary Knight said he believes the department accurately relayed the information about the deaths of Rodriguez and Edwards to the public. “I was the one who went to the scene on the Rodriguez case and I stand by every statement I made that night,” Oklahoma City Police Department Master Sgt. Gary Knight told The Frontier in an email. Knight, who was at the scene of the Rodriguez shooting, told The Frontier in an email that “our statements line up perfectly with what transpired on video.” “A person who just robbed a convenience and then reaches behind his back is making a furtive movement. As for (Bennie) Edwards, the suspect charged directly at Sgt. Duroy with a knife.” Knight did not respond to follow-up questions by The Frontier. Gary James, an Oklahoma attorney who has represented officers for more than two decades, said he is so synonymous with defending officers following shootings that he’s often arrived at the shooting scene before it has been cleared. “I can say over the last year, when I go to the scene with officers involved in deadly force situations, there is a noticeable emotional fear on the officers’ parts of being charged,” James told The Frontier during a recent interview. “It’s scary. I understand there’s bad shootings, and there can be bad police officers just like in any profession, but it has turned now where police officers are getting charged when they are following United States Supreme Court law that they are trained on.” It is rare to see a police officer charged for shooting someone. Only twice since 2016 have officers charged with on-duty shootings been convicted in Oklahoma. In 2015, a reserve Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office deputy was convicted for killing an unarmed man during a drug sting. And in 2019, Oklahoma City Police Department Sgt. Keith Sweeney was convicted of second-degree murder after killing a man named Dustin Pigeon. Pigeon, 29, had doused himself with lighter fluid and threatened to light himself on fire. Body camera footage showed Sweeney threatening to shoot Pigeon. He eventually shot him five times, killing him. Even the Oklahoma City lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which routinely, and loudly, defends officers who use force on the job, offered only a muted defense of Sweeney. The police union released a statement after Sweeney was convicted saying it grieved for the family of both Pigeon and Sweeney and defended Sweeney only by saying it didn’t believe he went “to work that night expecting to be placed in this position.” In July 2020, a police officer named Chance Avery shot and killed 49-year-old Christopher Poor after responding to a domestic disturbance in The Village, a town of about 10,000 people in the northwest Oklahoma City area. The Village Police Department initially said that Avery shot and killed Poor during “a confrontation.” But body camera video that was later released showed that Avery followed Poor, who was holding a baseball bat, into a room, and ordered him to put the bat down. “I will,” Poor replied. He then pointed at the officer and appeared to say something about the officer putting his gun down. He took a partial step toward Avery and was shot multiple times. It was not the first time Avery had killed a man. In 2013, Avery was a deputy for the Custer County Sheriff’s Office when he and another deputy shot and killed 18-year old Mah-hi-Vist Goodblanket in his home during a domestic disturbance. Goodblanket, authorities said, attacked deputies with a knife. Avery reportedly shot himself in the hand during the encounter. The Custer County Sheriff’s office did not outfit its deputies with body cameras in 2013 and investigators later ruled the shooting of Goodblanket as justified. Avery and another deputy were awarded a “Medal of Valor” from the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association for the shooting. But after reviewing video footage of the 2020 shooting in The Village, Prater charged Avery with first-degree manslaughter. Avery’s preliminary hearing is tentatively set for later this month. Russ Landon, deputy chief of The Village Police Department, told The Frontier he was “purposefully vague” following the shooting not in an attempt to be misleading, but in order to not get any facts wrong while the investigation was in its infancy. “The last thing I want to do is say something on the scene and then later have to go back and retract it,” Landon said. “I tried to focus on what we knew at the time … I didn’t want to say too much but I also didn’t want to start making statements about ‘our officer was defending his life’ because I see that kind of answer too often and at that point we just didn’t have all the facts yet.” He said in the immediate aftermath of the Poor shooting, he was contemplating the potential for a civil lawsuit to be filed against the department. He feared a wrong word or a poorly-phrased statement could have been costly. “You can say too much but you can also say too little,” he said. “It’s difficult. The public has a right to know what happened, (citizens) pay our salaries, and if you say too little it allows rumors to spread. But you can say too much and hamper an investigation too.” The Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to requests for comment from The Frontier on the department’s police shootings or the charges filed against its officers. The Oklahoma City Police Department offered a one-sentence response to questions posed by The Frontier about the number of shootings and fatal shootings by the department. “We always want to lower our number of officer-involved shootings, as no officer wants to shoot someone. But circumstances and suspects’ actions don’t always lend themselves to that,” Knight said in an emailed statement. ‘Deterrent effect’ Cameo Holland, Rodriguez’s mother, was thankful when she found out that Prater had filed criminal charges against the officers who killed her son, Rand Eddy, her attorney, told The Frontier. But now a civil lawsuit she filed this week against the department, not to mention criminal charges — and eventual hearings and trials of the officers — are her focus, Eddy said. “She’s holding up as well as can be expected,” he said. “It’s just a horrifying situation for her to be in. A big part of her motivation is that she’s still fighting for her son, hoping that in the process of bringing civil litigation we can affect some type of change in the system, something to help another parent down the road who is in the same situation.” In December Holland described to NonDoc, a nonprofit journalism outlet in Oklahoma, the difficulty of raising a troubled teenager who had run away from home, who had run-ins with police, and who had experience with the state’s juvenile justice system for some prior misdemeanors. She described an attempt she had made to get a judge to scare her son straight. “I figured when we went in front of him that the man would have something to say like, ‘Don’t do this,’ or, ‘You need to get it together,’ or something. And he didn’t say anything like that,” Holland told NonDoc in December. But, Eddy said, she never expected her son to die at the hands of police officers. Eddy said he hopes the criminal charges filed against the officers will serve as a “deterrent effect” in the future. “Hopefully it does have some effect,” he told The Frontier. “If police officers are no longer held to the FOP standard, which is just a rubber stamp of everything they do, if instead they find they’re being held to a standard that a regular citizen is held to, hopefully it does create some change, where they realize some situations need to be handled differently.” Palpable fear James said the question will likely be raised at some point whether police need to be trained differently. The law tends to be on the side of police officers following fatal shootings. A handful of Supreme Court rulings have created precedence that an officer must be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” and that an armed fleeing suspect can be shot if the officer believes the suspect would present a threat to others after escaping. James said it’s “hard” for him to understand sometimes why officers are charged after shootings when, in his opinion, “they’re just reacting to someone else and they’re following United States Supreme Court law. I just don’t understand it. “I’m not going to criticize any DA doing what they see fit,” James said. “I will say in the last year there have been tons of what I would call ‘cancel culture’ pressure following police shootings, you know, saying that police are always wrong … it’s scary.” Prater said he’s reviewed police shooting cases for 14 years, and “in almost every case, officers follow their training and the law when they discharge their weapons.” While James described a “palpable” sense of “fear” officers feel after a shooting, Prater said most officers “work very hard to develop skills and tactics that allow them to avoid a potentially deadly encounter with a citizen.” The only people who should be afraid are the bad actors who “should reassess their choice of vocation.” “The subset of officers who should be concerned about the ramifications of their conduct, are those who shouldn’t be police officers in the first place,” he said. “Many of those officers lack empathy for the citizens they serve; they are reckless, they ignore their training and they do not use common tactics that can be employed to prevent a use of force incident.” Oklahoma was ranked eighth nationally in per capita fatal police shootings in 2020, according to Frontier records and the Washington Post’s police shooting database. The state ranked third in 2018 and fourth in 2019 in per capita fatal police shootings. The Frontier has collected records related to police shootings in Oklahoma since 2018 in order to build a database and better understand who is being shot, which agencies are committing the shootings, and why they’re happening. Weapons were involved in the vast majority of fatal shootings. Records show police believe eleven people who were shot and killed by police last year were armed with guns and ten were armed with knives. Edwards was armed with a knife. Police reports state he “brandished” the knife in the direction of officers, then was shot as he began to run toward them and into the parking lot. But body camera video shows Edwards appearing to hold the knife as he ran past an officer and into an open parking lot. Police shot him five times, including at least twice from behind. In December, days after Oklahoma City police killed Edwards, a crowd that included Edwards’ niece Ameerah Gaines gathered outside the police department. Gaines said her uncle had battled mental illness and often struggled to discern reality from fantasy. Edwards liked to talk to people on the street, she said, and he liked to sell flowers. “We tried to keep him home. But you can’t keep somebody locked up. Him being out there made him happy. Him selling flowers made him happy,” she was quoted as saying in the OKC Free Press, an Oklahoma City news website. Another person there at the press conference that day was Jabee Williams, a local musician and activist. On Dec. 11, the day Edwards was killed, Williams posted a grainy cell phone video of the shooting, shot from a hundred feet or so away from the encounter. Williams told the crowd during the rally outside the police department that police “have been terrorizing” Black people “for too long.” He told The Frontier during a recent interview that when he hears that an Oklahoma City police officer has shot someone, the first thing he does is “pray that it’s not someone I know.” And while he’s supportive of criminal charges, “no one has been convicted yet,” and said his idea for changing the system is both a more simple suggestion and perhaps a more difficult one to put into motion. “I think that if things are going to be different, police need to start by admitting there’s a problem,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to say we have a problem here. Once they admit there’s a problem, you can start holding them accountable every time there’s a shooting and see if change happens.” He noted that every time there’s a police shooting, the first comment he sees in the media is usually from the local police union defending the officers. “That’s the sad part, at the end of the day, these people are just stuck in their ways. They shoot people because that’s how they’ve always handled situations. You can tell someone the sky is blue and they’ll tell you it’s not.”


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