Police statements tell the first version of an incident. Then video footage comes out
In the days since Tennessee officials released video footage of Memphis police officers brutally beating Tyre Nichols, law enforcement has faced a new wave of criticism.
Some of it has focused on how authorities initially described the incident – and what the videos actually show.
According to a statement from the Memphis Police Department the day after Nichols was beaten, officers pulled over a suspect on suspicion of reckless driving and "a confrontation occurred." The suspect fled, police followed and "another confrontation occurred."
(The statement notes that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was looking into the stop "due to the suspect's condition.")
Video footage released Friday, taken from officers' body cameras and a street surveillance camera, shows a different story. In the videos, police quickly yank Nichols from his car, shout obscenities and threats, and then pepper spray him. Nichols flees, and when police finally catch him a second time, officers kick him, hit him with a baton and repeatedly punch him in the head while he's being restrained.
For some, the discrepancy between the initial police statement and what was captured on video brought to mind previous instances in which law enforcement's initial statement about a violent encounter was vague, misleading or false.
Critics say the unclear and obfuscatory language police sometimes use to describe violent incidents to the public can further damage trust with communities that may already be skeptical of law enforcement.
"To the extent that you're putting out statements that are indicating one thing and then the video footage released later on shows completely the opposite, that definitely is problematic for trying to build police-community relations," Andrea Headley, a professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, told NPR.
Footage of high-profile incidents has bred skepticism of police accounts
On May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department said officers responded to a forgery in progress and arrested a suspect. "Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress," a press release read. "Officers called for an ambulance."
The man was George Floyd, and video footage of the incident captured by a bystander showed former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly pleaded, "I can't breathe!" Floyd died that day.
When the New York Police Department disclosed Eric Garner's death in 2014, a police spokesperson said a man was "being placed in custody, went into cardiac arrest and died," according to a New York Daily News article at the time.
But video shot by a bystander showed former NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in a chokehold until he went unconscious. New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide.
In 2018, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office first said that 23-year-old Dujuan Armstrong died of a drug overdose inside the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif. But as the Guardian reported, body-camera footage released later showed that officers put Armstrong in a restraining jacket and a spit mask before he became unresponsive. An autopsy found that Armstrong died of asphyxiation due to the restraints.
Headley, the Georgetown professor, said police have a number of reasons for issuing vague statements early on in use-of-force investigations, including the possibility that the authors of the statements may not have all the facts.
For example, John Elder was the Minneapolis Police Department's public information director in 2020 and wrote the initial statement about Floyd's death. He told the Los Angeles Times that he got his information from sergeants and computer-aided dispatch, and that he hadn't seen any video footage of the encounter before writing the press release.
"This had literally zero intent to deceive or be dishonest or disingenuous. Had we known that this [situation] was what we saw on the video, that statement would have been completely different," Elder told the newspaper.
Headley also said statements could be vague because investigators are still gathering evidence, or police leadership may not want to admit to a mistake or damage morale by condemning an officer's actions too quickly.
"But I think really where the conflict comes in is when there are discrepancies in the report or in the statements that are put out that don't match the evidence when it comes out. And when the language that is used is particularly one that tries to abdicate responsibility," she said.
Even after violent incidents, there are ways police departments can try to build trust, Headley suggested.
She said she worked with one agency that would bring in community leaders for an explanation of an incident before discussing it with the media. Departments can also acknowledge if they are still looking into what happened, she said, including if they haven't reviewed any video evidence yet.
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Psychologists say all of us can experience vicarious trauma when we bear witness to police brutality by watching what happened to Tyre Nichols and countless others like him.