The two videos–dashcam and bodycam–of the Charlotte confrontation are, as has been widely reported, not definitive. As I wrote in December of 2014 in The Body Camera Delusion, body cameras are not a panacea, an infallible source of evidence that will incontrovertibly prove or disprove any allegation against the police:
Let’s play police officer! Draw a camera on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the center of your chest on a buttoned shirt. Keep in mind the lens of your camera is sort of wide-angled, which means it will probably be able to take in two people standing shoulder to shoulder, but probably nothing else, and it might be able to take in their bodies from upper thigh to a bit over the top of the head, but a lot of that depends on how short, tall or wide they are and where you position it on your body.
Now, while talking to an imaginary person, shift your weight from foot to foot; gesture; point while extending your arm; bend slightly forward at the waist to look downward, turn to the left or right, lift one arm over your head; hold your notepad in front of you and write some notes as the person you’re interviewing talks to you. Now hug that person and imagine you’re struggling with them. Think for a moment. What did the last 30 seconds of video look like? Human beings are really pathetic stable camera platforms.
Anyone that has ever spent any real time working with telescopic sights on rifles has to laugh and shake their heads in amazement at the depictions of such things in movies. The images are always rock steady and razor sharp. Right. The same thing is true when you stick a small, wide angle camera on the front of someone’s body. The results won’t win any Academy Awards for cinematography.
The same is true for the audio track involved. Police officers work in the rain and snow, and particularly the wind. They’re surrounded constantly by significant ambient noise of all kinds, conversation, street noises, engine nose, radio traffic. With experience in life, we learn to filter out that which we don’t want or need to hear. We can do that because we carry an incredibly flexible and powerful computer around in our heads. Microphones attached to recorders can’t do that. They record it all, and when it really matters, what’s most audible on the recording is not what they want and need to hear.
“Oh, but they can replay it and use all kinds of high tech filter stuff.” Right. You’ve been watching CSI: Imaginationville again. Those guys have holographic displays that reenact complex human actions in real time, alterable with just a few keystrokes. Audio and video can be filtered and enhanced to some degree, but most people and most police don’t have the technology, the expertise, the money or the time, and the kind of magic seen on TV and in the movies is just that: magic.
Usually, whatever was recorded is what you’ve got.
The same is true of dash cameras, which are meant to be used primarily to record video of a vehicle parked in front of a stopped police car as a result of a traffic stop. Anything outside that relatively narrow field of view won’t be recorded, and in both Charlotte Police videos, the generally poor resolution, and significant limitations of the technology, are on display.
What they also lack is context. What brought the police to the 60 seconds or so of video just prior to and just after the shooting? What clues and indicators did the police have that the cameras couldn’t possibly record that caused them to believe they were in deadly danger?
That said, I’ve noticed several things of interest from the videos and photos of evidence released by the police. Bob Owens at Bearing Arms, where I am a contributor, also made many of the same observations. Both previous links have the videos.
Ankle Holster: In the body camera video–it’s visible for just a few frames–Scott is wearing what appears to be a black ankle holster. His pant leg is either pulled up over the holster–which would be necessary to draw the gun it contained–or it’s strapped over his pants leg. Coincidently, the police recovered a black ankle holster from Keith’s right ankle with its strap undone.
Right Hand: While I cannot be positive, due to the poor resolution, and almost continual movement of the body camera, my impression is there is something in Scott’s right hand, and from the way he’s holding that hand, my first thought was “gun!” Were I actually there, I would, of course, be in a much better position to make such judgments.
Scott’s Gun: The weapon is a Colt Mustang in .380 ACP. It appears to be the correct size handgun for the ankle holster, and is not the sort of cheap gun one finds corrupt police using as a “throwdown” gun. The current MSRP is $599.00. The Mustang is a single action semiautomatic handgun. What’s most interesting, if one can assume that the photo provided by the police is the condition of the handgun as it lay on the ground after being dropped by Scott, is the hammer is cocked, and the safety is off. The gun was ready to fire. Single action handguns like the Mustang and 1911 are safely carried “cocked and locked,” with the hammer fully cocked and the safety on. To fire, one pushes the safety down with the thumb, and pulls the trigger. Either Scott was foolish enough to carry the weapon with the hammer cocked and the safety off–very dangerous–or he made the decision to fire, and was in the process when shot.
All of this suggests the officers were correct. Scott, for whatever reason, made the decision to confront police officers with a cocked and off-safe handgun in his hand.
“But they didn’t give him the chance to clearly demonstrate his intentions!”
Irrelevant, and incredibly dangerous and stupid.
“But he didn’t point it at them before they fired!”
“But they couldn’t have known the safety was off!”
“But they should have tased him before shooting him!”
Irrelevant, and incredibly dangerous and stupid.
Reality Check: Actual gunfights are nothing like TV and the movies. Things happen incredibly quickly, and there are no clear-cut words, actions, or slow-motion sequences and close ups to tell the viewer exactly what is going to happen, who is doing it, or why. TV and movie cops often shoot people every episode, and are apparently never suspended while a lengthy investigation is completed. They never have to submit to psychological examination and counseling, and suffer no psychic consequences.
In the real world, most officers complete a career without ever having to shoot anyone. While police officers–the smart ones–train to be as effective and fast as possible in deadly force situations, and would like to believe they’re capable of handling them, they also fervently hope they never have to shoot anyone. If Brently Vinson never thought such things through, one can be sure he is doing it now.
There are several aphorisms governing gunfights, but the most applicable here is:
Action is always faster than reaction.
Many experiments have documented this reality. The fastest human beings, confronted with a threat, can recognize it and begin to make a response in about a quarter of a second, which sounds very fast, but it’s actually not. The advantage virtually always lies with the person that moves first, the “action” portion of the aphorism.
I have been blessed with extraordinarily fast reflexes, reflexes improved through regular practice. During my police days, I would spend at least 15 minutes a day–every day–on the indoor range practicing drawing from a secured holster, including presenting the weapon at targets from the front, sides and rear. I assume I’m not quite as fast now–age catches up to us all–but I haven’t quantified that for a long time.
In those days we used electronic digital timers to run experiments. Drawing from a secured holster against an opponent whose gun was already in hand, with them making the first move, I could, with some people, get off a shot at about the same time they did, which means if we were both on target, we would both be shot more or less simultaneously. With other, faster people, I was a little behind, but we would both probably be shot. My first bullet would arrive fractions of a second after theirs (obviously, we used carefully checked unloaded weapons).
Keep in mind I could do this only because I knew exactly what they were going to do and could anticipate and plan my response. I could pre-program and activate my well-practiced muscle memory.
Other officers were not as fast or practiced. They virtually always ended up “shot” before they could get their gun out of the holster. Some did a bit better, but would likely still absorb several bullets before they could get their barrel aligned on their attacker, if they were still able to shoot at that point. Many, probably most, in a real gunfight, would have been shot full of holes without ever clearing their holster.
“Well what about the officers with their guns out? They were pointing their guns at Scott and he wasn’t pointing his gun at them!”
Other experiments we ran indicated, once again, action is faster than reaction. In that situation, where the person initiating the action was holding their gun, pointed at the ground, I would get in first shots at about the same time, but again, that’s in part because I knew exactly what was coming and anticipated and planned my response. Slower officers didn’t do nearly as well, and many would have been shot multiple times, and almost certainly unable to return fire.
“But they were wearing bulletproof vests!”
There is no such thing. Manufacturers advertise them as “bullet resistant,” and they do work, up to the threat level for which they were designed. Police officers commonly wear vests only capable of stopping common handgun bullets; anything else is too bulky, heavy and restrictive of movement. However, they cover only the torso above the belt line. No one can be sure where someone crazed enough to try to shoot a police officer will place their shots.
This is where movies and TV have also done a great disservice. Bullet wounds of any kind are terribly destructive. With few exceptions, one cannot be shot in the shoulder, leg or arm, and certainly not the head or neck, without being permanently disabled, deformed, crippled, or even killed. A gunshot wound to the torso below the belt is almost always horrifically painful, debilitating, and takes a very long time to heal. Such wounds often leave one with a permanent colostomy. A hit on an artery anywhere in the body can cause one to bleed out long before medical care can arrive.
Keith Scott: Let us assume, for the purposes of this article, the situation is as the Charlotte Police have suggested. Scott was armed, had unholstered his handgun, had the Mustang .380, cocked and off safe, in his hand, and refused as many as eleven police orders to drop the gun within a short span of seconds before being shot. Were the police justified?
The Use of Deadly Force: One may use deadly force in self defense when:
Means: An potential attacker has the present, obvious means to cause serious bodily injury or death.
Opportunity: An attacker is close enough, and circumstances make it possible, to use that means.
Jeopardy: An attacker is actually acting on their threat, or has clearly communicated their intention to act upon it. Jeopardy must be imminent, something that’s going to happen in mere seconds.
Two additional factors that are of equal importance are innocence and proportionality:
Innocence: To legitimately claim self-defense, one must be an innocent victim of an assault. Willfully engaging in mutual combat–a fistfight, for example–generally precludes innocence. One may not, in any way, provoke, incite, or bait another into an assault and then cry self-defense when losing.
Proportionality: The force used against an attacker must be in proportion to the force applied, or about to be applied against the innocent victim.
Take innocence first. The police, acting in their official capacity, so long as their actions are lawful and justified, are presumed to be acting innocently. They are enforcing the law and responding to threats, not initiating them.
In this case, Scott obviously had the means and the opportunity. He was holding a handgun, and was within easy handgun range. His repeated refusal to disarm himself put the officers in jeopardy. I do not know the officer’s other observations. Often, such things are subtle: a narrowing of the eyes, a tensing of the muscles, a change in facial expression or posture, things not clear to a body camera or the viewer of a low resolution video.
Remember the experiments my fellow officers and I performed. Giving the initiator the first shot always results in being hit, perhaps killed. There is no such thing as letting the bad guy get in the first shot, not if one wants to live, nor does the law require it. If it did, there would be no police officers, save those with death wishes.
But what about a taser? This is where proportionality comes into play. A taser is a “less-lethal” weapon. It is used in situations where deadly force may be justified, but it is not absolutely necessary to use it. However, when tasers are used, one commonly sees accompanying officers covering the suspect with a gun, just in case.
“Just in case” what? Just in case the taser fails. In order to work, both barbs connected by wires to the taser must strike the suspect and penetrate his or her clothing to bare skin. Both must be solidly embedded in the skin. Range is very limited, and tasers are not highly accurate. In addition, some people are more or less immune to the effects of a taser. There are many cases on record where a suspect merely tore out the barbs and attacked officers. On the other hand, some people have died from taser jolts, thus the “less-lethal” designation.
Scott was fractions of a second away from initiating deadly force against the officers. Any officer resorting to a taser should have their tactical sense and psychological fitness for duty carefully examined.
Scott needed to be immediately stopped, and the most effective way of doing that was the officer’s handguns. Waiting, in Hollywood fashion, for Scott to make the first shot, is not only unnecessary under the law, but could have been a last, deadly mistake. Under the circumstances, the officer’s response was perfectly proportional and lawful. They didn’t have to know the safety was off. Safeties can be flicked off simultaneously with an upward motion of the arm, bringing the weapon on line; single action handguns like the Mustang are designed that way.
If the facts and evidence of the case continue to follow the general outline currently available in the media, there seems little doubt the officers not only acted lawfully, but with tactical soundness. Gunfights aren’t games with sets of refereed rules. They are blindingly fast, ugly, bloody and deadly. No one, including the police, is required to wait until they’ve been shot to prevent being shot, though there are professional racial hustlers and politicians that want essentially that.
For the final word on police use of cameras, let’s return to my 2014 article:
There can be no doubt that one of the primary premises for police body cameras is faulty: video doesn’t prevent thugs, race hustlers, social justice Marxists and politicians from stirring up unwarranted, opportunistic violence and keeping people at each other’s throats.
There can also be no doubt that such video, if it works and actually captures what one would hope it captured, can keep police officers from falling victim to false accusations–at least as long as corrupt special prosecutors aren’t involved as in the George Zimmerman case.