Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Police in South Florida could benefit from truth machines

The Daytona Beach policemen fired their pistols just as a drug-addled mad man began jabbing his knife into Katrina Tatisha Johnson’s neck and shoulder. Surely, they saved Johnson’s life.

But it was the kind of police shooting in which the facts can get distorted in the aftermath. When the victim of the domestic violence incident, days later, might decide to forgive her tormentor and recast her recollection of events. When the police version of a shooting that occurred inside a house, in a dimly lit bedroom, might be weighed against the dubious assumptions of a minority community long skeptical of law enforcement.

Indeed, the lawyer representing Katrina Johnson, who received a minor bullet wound in one arm in the police fusillade, has warned Daytona Beach Police Department to preserve evidence that might be pertinent in a lawsuit.

Adding to the potential volatility, Jermaine Green, 32, the man police shot that night, was a onetime local football hero. “Can't believe they came in there and did something like that to him,” Green’s mother told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “Nobody deserves to be treated like that. It wasn't justice to do him like that.”

It was the kind of shooting in which the facts might have been lost in the murk of rumor and mistrust and racial animus. Except the Daytona Beach cops came that night wearing their truth machines.

A neighbor could be heard shouting, “He’s going to kill her,” as police rolled up to the house on Magnolia Street with their body cams capturing sounds and images. Last year, the Daytona Beach street cops had been issued the small, wearable video cameras that have become standard issue for some 600 police departments across the U.S.

At 3 a.m. Sept. 25, a police body cam aimed over the officer’s drawn pistol captured video that conveys exactly what he saw as he walked warily into the house and came upon Green, the onetime star running back for Washington State University, holding a kitchen knife and grappling with the panicked Johnson. The device picked up the policeman’s voice amid the turmoil: “Let her go. Let her go dude.”

Green fell back onto the bed, pulling Johnson on top of him like a human shield. We see, via the video, Green attempting to stab the struggling woman. The audio re-plays her terrified scream. Then, as she rolls slightly to one side, momentarily exposing Green, we hear the volley of shots.

Those two minutes and 36 seconds of raw, unbiased video dispel the usual doubts about the validity of the police action. Anyone could see that it was, as cops say, a righteous shooting. The aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charges against Green, who was wounded in the leg, comes with irrefutable digital evidence.

Police officers in Orlando, Boynton Beach, Detroit, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Denver, Pittsburgh, Modesto, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., Albuquerque, N.M., Phoenix and Scottsdale in Arizona, and hundreds of smaller departments are clipping small, hi-def Bluetooth video cameras to uniform shirt collars, caps, even sunglasses, that automatically download digital records of their encounters with the public.

Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill legalizing police body cams in his state. Police in Britain, France, New Zealand and Singapore also are clipping on body cams.

Yet, in South Florida, where city and county police agencies face constant allegations of misconduct, along with the attendant lawsuits, only Hallandale has outfitted police officers with body cams — and over the protests of the union.

Yet for good police work, body cams offer lawyer-proof insurance against unwarranted complaints.

Video could have settled still lingering questions around the death of graffiti artist Israel Hernández-Llach, 18, who was chased down and shot in the chest with a Taser stun gun by Miami Beach police last August. It was a fatal jolt. Friends of Hernández-Llach described a much rougher version of the encounter than police reported. If the Miami Beach police account was accurate, a video truth machine would have silenced their critics.

A study sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police indicated that when encounters are captured on video, 90 percent of police misconduct allegations result in officer exonerations. The study also indicated that half of the public’s complaints are immediately withdrawn when people see video of police encounters. “Right now, wearing the cameras is voluntary,” Cpl. Tracey Knight of the Fort Worth Police Department told NBC News. “However, more and more officers are requesting to have one issued to them and some have even purchased their own.”

Video can validate even the improbable police reports. In Greensboro, N.C., last year, a police body cam recorded a 10-year-old girl standing on her back porch, hurling a knife at the police officer. Who would have believed the little kid would have attempted such a thing without that video?

The cams also have a certain prophylactic effect, restraining police officers who, without the all-seeing eye, might be inclined toward unseemly behavior. Last year, in Rialto, Calif., the Police Foundation and the Institute of Criminology (University of Cambridge), ran a year-long study comparing the job performances of camera-equipped officers against a “control group” without body cameras. The study measured “what happens when the level of certainty of apprehension for professional misconduct was set at 100 percent.”

In the first year, after cameras were introduced in Rialto, public complaints against police officers fell 88 percent. Officers’ use of force dropped by 60 percent.

Like automatic firearms and two-way radios and squad car computer terminals, body cams ought to be accepted as essential tools for modern policing. (And, at about $500 each, a cheap way to ward off frivolous misconduct lawsuits.) Every cop working the unruly streets of South Florida needs a truth machine.