(Reuters) - Some U.S. authorities have moved with unusual speed to fire, suspend or charge police officers caught on video hitting and pushing peaceful protesters and targeting them with pepper spray during nationwide protests in recent weeks, a Reuters review of 44 videos recorded during the demonstrations found.
Police investigations into alleged officer misconduct rarely result in discipline, law enforcement experts said. And it is not uncommon for fired officers to be reinstated through arbitration or to be hired by other police agencies. Nationwide data on police discipline is limited, the experts said.
The videos reviewed by Reuters were shot during demonstrations that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. While hundreds of such videos have been shared recently on social media platforms, Reuters focused on 44 that were widely circulated online. Nearly all the videos were shot by protesters or bystanders.
Two of the incidents Reuters examined - in Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky - have led to police officers or chiefs losing their jobs. Local district attorneys have pressed charges against six officers in Atlanta, two officers in Buffalo, New York, one officer in New York City and one officer in Philadelphia, the review found.
In all, police departments said they were investigating or reviewing the incidents shown in 35 of the videos, a tally that includes the videos that led to officers being fired or charged with crimes. Officers were put on desk duty, modified duty or given paid leave in at least six instances.
(For an interactive version of this story, with video, see: tmsnrt.rs/3erXv4z)
The fact that the incidents were captured on video appears to have increased the likelihood of officers being charged with a crime, which is a rare occurrence, according to Christy Lopez, who worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2010 to 2017. Lopez led the team that investigated the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 killing of an unarmed Black teenager by a white police officer.
“I have been reviewing written accounts of incidents like this for decades, and often it is only when there is a video that there is any chance of accountability, or even attention, regardless of how blatant the police misconduct is,” said Lopez, now a professor at Georgetown Law. “There is no question that video prompts action.”
The incident that sparked the protests – Floyd’s death at the hands of the police – was captured by a bystander on a cellphone video that lasted more than 10 minutes. Such footage can be more valuable for investigations and prosecutions than officer-worn body cameras, which provide a limited field of view, according to Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer.
Body-worn cameras can malfunction, he said, and officers sometimes fail to activate them before an incident. Beyond that, people who view any type of videos may disagree about the facts and what they mean.
Floyd’s death led to protests in Minneapolis that spread to cities and towns in all 50 states. While most of the protests have been peaceful, some led to violence and looting. Thousands of people were arrested across the country, including in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other cities.
Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired and charged in connection with the incident, including Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, killing him. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. The other three officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. None of the officers have been asked to enter a plea yet, according to the state attorney general’s office.
Nationwide data on federal and state prosecutions related to police use of force or other misconduct is limited, according to experts. Even less is known about the number of instances where prosecutors considered charges, but did not press them.
Rachel Harmon, director of the Center for Criminal Justice at the University of Virginia School of Law, said video creates “a more even playing field” when it comes to determining what happened during incidents between police and the public.
She also said it humanizes people who are subject to alleged police misconduct, which can make the viewer “more sympathetic to that person’s suffering, even if that person is imperfect.” Public opinion polls show Americans’ views on racism and police misconduct have shifted dramatically in recent weeks compared with earlier surveys.
In one New York City case, New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Vincent D’Andraia was charged with assault, menacing, and harassment for throwing a protester to the ground. He has pleaded not guilty. A supervisor was also disciplined and reassigned. In two other New York City cases, two officers were referred for discipline, with one suspended without pay and one reassigned.
The NYPD officer who was suspended was shown on video pulling down the face mask of a protester who had his hands raised, then spraying that protester with what appeared to be pepper spray. The officer who was reassigned was seen opening the passenger side door of a moving police vehicle so that it struck a protester.
NYPD only identified the officer who was charged. Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said in a written statement to Reuters that each officer was “entitled to due process and a full and impartial investigation of the incident, not summary judgment based on a few seconds of video.”
The 44 videos reviewed by Reuters show police pushing protesters to the ground, throwing or shooting projectiles at them, and striking them with batons or fists.
Ashley Heiberger, a retired officer from the Bethlehem Police Department in Pennsylvania, said the videos likely do not include all the information needed to judge an officer’s behavior. Heiberger now works as an independent consultant advising police departments on policies, training, accountability and the use of force.
“It’s not really possible to watch a video and make a determination about whether it suggests misconduct without knowing the context,” Heiberger said. “If you just see an officer applying force to a subject, you have no idea why he’s doing that and the totality of circumstances.”
The videos involved at least 27 local law enforcement agencies, as well as the U.S. Park Police and the District of Columbia and Kentucky National Guard forces.
Officers have only been publicly identified in six of the 44 videos reviewed by Reuters.
The footage appears to show at least 80 officers involved in the incidents, according to an estimate by the news agency. In some cases, particularly in instances where protesters were shot with bean bag rounds and rubber bullets or sprayed with tear gas, it was unclear how many officers may have been involved based on the video footage.
Two former law enforcement officers who reviewed the videos for Reuters said that at least some of the officers appeared to be acting inappropriately or that the nature of the incidents suggested the need for further investigation.
Former NYPD detectives John Baeza and Joseph Guida, who work together and typically serve as expert witnesses in cases on behalf of alleged victims of police misconduct, reviewed the videos and found roughly half appeared to show inappropriate behavior. The other cases lacked context or did not show the intent of the officers, they said.
The city of Atlanta’s response to a May 30 altercation involving its police force stands out among the incidents reviewed by Reuters because officers were fired soon afterwards.
Body cameras worn by police showed officers breaking a window on a car whose driver and passenger were college students, stunning them with Tasers and pulling them from the vehicle.
Of the six officers allegedly involved, two were fired and four were suspended the following day. On June 10, two more of the officers were fired. Four of the officers were charged with aggravated assault, a felony. The two other officers faced lesser charges.
Susan Hutson, who has been the independent police monitor for the New Orleans Police Department since 2010, said prosecutions of law enforcement for alleged misconduct were rare, and that she was encouraged by the swift move to bring charges in cities such as Atlanta.
Still, she said a prosecution is only one step in the process and does not necessarily mean that an officer will be convicted.
“A lot of times juries don’t want to convict, and courts are sympathetic as well to police officers,” Hutson said. “It can be tough to keep them fired.”
Lance LoRusso, an attorney representing two fired Atlanta officers, Ivory Streeter and Mark Gardner, said his clients did not use excessive force and that the arrests were lawful. The two officers filed a lawsuit that argues they were fired without due process and should be reinstated and receive back pay.
The other officers could not be reached for comment.
Vince Champion, the southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which represents all six officers involved, said the district attorney’s office had acted too quickly in charging the officers and that more time was needed to determine whether misconduct occurred.
Heiberger, the former Pennsylvania police officer, said police officers often have additional due process protections in state statutes, city codes and union contracts. He said officers typically must be given information about the allegations and the opportunity to consult with a labor representative. They often get a chance to review the evidence that supports those allegations, he said. Heiberger said use-of-force investigations are serious matters that involve interviews with all parties and the collection of relevant evidence, which is then reviewed.
“While I don’t know for certain how the Atlanta Police Department conducts its internal operations, I’m skeptical that the required investigative and adjudicative procedures could be completed in one day,” he said, referencing the quick dismissal of the two officers after the May 30 incident.
The police department and mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment over the firings and due process concerns.
Local prosecutors in other cities have filed charges, too.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office charged Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna with aggravated assault and other crimes on June 5 after he was captured on video striking a college student in the back of the head with a metal baton.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a written statement announcing the charges that his office was “trying to be fair” and that “accountability has to be equal.”
The local police union in that city has rallied around the accused officer, selling T-shirts that read “Bologna Strong” and cheering him as he left the union headquarters to surrender to authorities on June 8.
Fortunato Perri, an attorney representing Bologna, told Reuters in an email that the officer’s actions were justified.
“In the midst of this deadly pandemic, Inspector Bologna and his fellow officers were spit on, sprayed with urine and other chemicals as well as verbally and physically assaulted,” Perri said. “His use of force to apprehend an individual, who was trying to thwart a lawful arrest during a melee, was lawful and justified.”
Mayor Jim Kenney on May 30 lauded his city’s police force for showing “restraint” during violent protests, saying they were spit on and had urine and “caustic agents” thrown at them.
Reuters could not confirm whether Bologna was directly involved in such incidents. His attorney did not respond to a request for additional details.
One of the best-known videos features a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, New York, who appeared to be pushed to the ground by two police officers during a June 4 demonstration.
In the video, Martin Gugino, a local activist, lay motionless on the ground as blood seeped from his right ear. Kelly Zarcone, Gugino’s attorney, told reporters afterward that Gugino had a fractured skull and a brain injury. She confirmed the injuries to Reuters and said on June 12 that he was not yet able to walk.
The two officers, who were part of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team, were suspended without pay and arraigned on felony assault charges.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said a day after the incident that he had spoken with Gugino and was thankful he survived.
“You see that video and it disturbs your basic sense of decency and humanity,” Cuomo said during a press briefing. “Why, why, why was that necessary? Where was the threat?”
John Evans, president of the Buffalo police officers’ union, told Reuters the charges “should never have been filed,” but did not elaborate. Evans had previously told a local media outlet that the officers were simply following orders.
Reporting by Ted Hesson and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Mimi Dwyer in New York; Editing by Ross Colvin and Marla Dickerson