from the command-control dept
There are cameras everywhere. But when cops start shooting, it's usually bullets and never footage. The first recordings that ever make their way to the public are those shot by bystanders. Anything else captured during a shooting remains under strict control of law enforcement… even when the recordings don't belong to law enforcement.
Minutes after two cops killed Alton Sterling outside of a convenience store, police confiscated all surveillance video of the incident without a warrant and allegedly without permission.
An attorney for the owner of the Triple S Mart, Abdullah Muflahi, told The Daily Beast a hard drive containing the complete recording of the Sterling’s death at the hands of Baton Rouge Police Department Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake was unlawfully taken by police. Muflahi showed The Daily Beast the barren cabinet where the hard drive had been.
All that’s left of the storage unit is a sole barren wire.
If this tactic sounds familiar, it's because we've seen it on multiple occasions. After Laquan McDonald was shot by Chicago police officers, several cops went to a nearby restaurant and seized its surveillance recordings. It took the city of Chicago over a year to release dashcam footage of the incident -- footage that was oddly missing the audio that normally would have been captured when the camera was turned on.
In California, cops raided a marijuana dispensary. Before helping themselves to edibles and playing a game of darts, officers attempted to disable the store's surveillance cameras and seized recording devices.
In Baton Rouge, officers were wearing body cameras. Chances of seeing this footage is nil. According to reports, the cameras "came loose" during the shooting and apparently did not record "quality" footage of the incident. And, as of now, city attorneys, the police department, and the FBI (which is conducting its own investigation of the shooting) are refusing to discuss the missing surveillance equipment.
When The Daily Beast requested both the surveillance video and the supposed warrant from the Baton Rouge Police Department, a lawyer from the department first denied the request by saying they could not turn over any documents from a “criminal investigation.” When told that a warrant is a public court document and could not be withheld, the lawyer then outright refused to confirm or deny if a warrant for the surveillance video even existed.
After backtracking on the existence of the warrant, the attorney backtracked on the possession of the surveillance video, saying that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had the hard drive.
“My client has not been informed of that,” said Porter, the attorney for the store owner.
The FBI refused to confirm or deny the police department’s claim.
What has been confirmed is that it was a warrantless seizure. Both the Baton Rouge District Attorney and the clerk of courts have admitted there is no record of a warrant being issued or even an affidavit submitted.
Another controversial shooting, following one day after the Baton Rouge incident, has also resulted in missing footage -- albeit only temporarily.
The driver of the car in which passenger Philandro Castile was shot by police officers posted a horrifying video of the aftermath to Facebook using its live-streaming option. Not too long after it was posted, the video vanished. Facebook blamed it on a "technical glitch" and restored the recording an hour later. The details behind the video's disappearance now suggest this wasn't a glitch, nor was it Facebook inappropriately flexing its content policies.
Castile, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter were pulled over by police in the Falcon Heights suburb of Minneapolis for a broken tail light. Using her cellphone and Facebook Live, Reynolds web-streamed footage of her dying boyfriend after he was shot by a police officer as he reached for his ID in his wallet. The video was mysteriously removed from her Facebook profile as it went viral across the internet.
On Thursday, Facebook said a “technical glitch" caused the recording to be pulled from its social network. However, Reynolds claimed officers seized her phone and took over her Facebook account to delete the evidence.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the event have tonight confirmed to The Register that someone – highly suspected to be the city's police – used her phone to remove her recording from public view shortly after the shooting.
This, too, is a common occurrence. While the Supreme Court's Riley decision may provide an easy way to determine whether someone's Fourth Amendment rights have been violated by a search/seizure of their cell phone, it doesn't prevent an officer from simply taking a cell phone and deleting incriminating footage. The path for redress is clearer, but it's powerless against those whose first reaction is to vanish away evidence of their misconduct. [Update: For what it's worth, Facebook is standing by its "technical glitch" story and says the cops did not delete the video]. To quote law professor Butler Shaffer [h/t Faultline's Matt Brown]:
The Constitution is that sacred document which prevents the government from doing all the terrible things it does.
Fortunately, a number of streaming options and cloud services will keep some recordings from disappearing just because a phone is illegally seized and accessed. But both of these shootings -- and their responses to "uncontrolled" recordings -- show law enforcement has a long way to go before it can be considered trustworthy.