The video of an Austin police officer punching a man in the face as he lay restrained on the ground is disturbing. One officer grabs the man’s arms, while the other officer sits on top of his legs, delivering a series of hard blows to a seemingly defenseless suspect. A third person who is not an officer helps restrain the shirtless man.
No wonder the video went viral.
But here’s the thing: Context is important. And as Austin Police Chief Brian Manley cautions, context can’t be seen or determined from a video recording showing only part of the incident, which happened early Wednesday in downtown Austin.
Context, as Manley says, means knowing what happened in the moments before a bystander started recording the incident. That should be available from footage of body-worn cameras of two officers, who arrested the suspect. But here’s another thing: Those cameras failed.
One fell off an officer — or was knocked off — as he was trying to arrest the man, Justin Grant, 23. A second body camera worn by another officer stopped working.
“There was a lot that happened prior to the part that has been displayed in public right now,” Manley said. “I understand the community’s concern with the video as it was posted. I don’t think it was readily known that the suspect at that time was in possession of a deadly weapon.”
Manley was referring to a 6-inch knife, which according to police and witnesses, was tucked in Grant’s waistband. A witness said Grant could be seen reaching for the weapon as two officers approached him on Fourth Street. Police also say Grant tried to reach for his knife during the altercation.
Officers were called to the scene because Grant reportedly was threatening staff at the Rain nightclub early Wednesday. Grant ultimately was arrested and charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat, according to court documents.
Given what’s on the video, the arrest has become controversial, raising questions about whether the officers used reasonable or excessive force.
Manley has called on his Internal Affairs division to get answers to that question. The inquiry, he said, will turn on information gathered from police, witnesses, the nightclub and viral video, among other things. The chief has asked for others who witnessed the incident to come forward with their accounts or cell phone videos.
What won’t be part of the inquiry is what would have been the most objective account of the incident because the officers’ body cameras failed. Those cameras have been successful in providing independent, factual accounts regarding APD’s use of force because they captured the entire episode.
On several occasions, officers were proved to be acting with reasonable force after supervisors reviewed the footage from body-worn cameras. Such evidence was invaluable in how those incidents were perceived by the public and handled by police brass.
This week’s controversial arrest, however, illustrates the limitations — and deficiencies — of body-worn cameras, which were supposed to be sturdy enough to endure contact between police and suspects in arrests that get physical.
What I learned, however, is that the Axon-manufactured body cameras Austin police use are attached to their shirts, using powerful magnets. While hard to pull apart, it’s not uncommon during physical contact for them to slide apart, then fall to the ground. That is apparently what happened Wednesday with the first officer’s body camera.
As for why the second officer’s body-worn camera stopped working, that still is a mystery.
Manley says there is no indication that the officer turned his camera off, and in fact the camera was recording before it suddenly stopped. He added that it didn’t capture any of the incident.
The chief said he is working with Axon to look at better ways of harnessing cameras to officers’ uniforms. As to that other camera that just stopped working, Manley said he would examine whether it is a lemon that should be replaced or whether the malfunction signals something bigger with body-worn cameras.
Do they, for instance, have a technical default that causes them to stop under certain conditions?
In the short run, it’s a problem for APD, which has come under national scrutiny for its use of excessive force. The department has not shaken the stigma of the violent arrest a few years ago of a small-framed African American schoolteacher, Breaion King, after she was stopped by an Austin officer for a traffic violation. That was caught on video, which also went viral.
The city made a huge investment in body-worn cameras in response to King’s arrest and other incidents that involved excessive or deadly force. Those cameras are key to a healthy relationship between police and the public. They protect police and the public and help hold officers accountable. But body-worn cameras aren’t useful if they don’t function in the moments we need them most.
If context is important, then body-worn cameras need to work.