The police shooting of De’Von Bailey shows how slippery video “evidence” can be. I say “evidence” in quotes because videos released so far by the Colorado Springs Police Department are like public-relations spin more than an honest look at what the recordings show.
What does the video show? Police highlighted certain details. For instance, they froze one frame that might be interpreted as Bailey reaching for his waist with his right hand, presumably to draw a gun.
But this freeze-frame is misleading. The preceding frame shows Bailey’s right hand to be empty and outside his shorts. The following frame and the next show Bailey’s right hand visible outside his shorts. As he runs, he puts his hand over his crotch. The muzzle of the gun in Bailey’s pocket briefly can be seen behind him between his legs.
Nowhere in the video do we see Bailey’s right hand dip into his pocket or waistband. Nowhere do we see Bailey holding a gun.
Fight or flight
Police in perceived danger don’t have time to study stop-motion replays of micro-gestures, obviously. In such situations, officers and suspects alike can react physiologically in ways that are irrational and automatic.
At gunpoint, for example, an officer might fight, freeze, faint, or flee. This is an instinctive reaction called the acute stress response, or fight-or-flight. Police are trained to recognize and cope with acute stress response because it’s common in their line of work.
Increased heart rate and accelerated breathing can signal acute stress, and some police agencies use wearable technology to monitor officers’ physical condition. Colorado Springs police use body cams integrated with Bluetooth devices and CAD, or computer-aided dispatch, allowing the system track data for signs of officers in trouble.
Did the officers who shot Bailey suffer acute stress response during their interaction with him? Data from these officers’ trackers could shed light on whether they did, and when.
Did Bailey feel intense danger, triggering an instinctive urge to flee? If so, it’s notable that auditory exclusion, or loss of hearing, can happen during acute stress. Meaning, a young man running for his life may be unable to hear police officers shouting commands.
The video shows it was reasonable for officers to believe Bailey was armed. Van’t Land and an unnamed officer can be seen exchanging tactical signals indicating the presence of a gun. As Bailey stood in front of Van’t Land, a bulge was visible in the right-hand pocket of Bailey’s shorts. Van’t Land told Bailey police had received a report of someone with a similar description having a gun.
Bailey was, in fact, armed. Even so, video shows the situation was not volatile or escalating. Bailey promptly answered Van’t Land’s questions and complied with his commands. Bailey made no verbal threats. He made no threatening moves toward officers or others. Police outnumbered Bailey and his cousin, and had the option of calling for more officers. Police were in full control of the stop.
Video shows Officer Evenson with a pair of frisking gloves. Having reasonable suspicion that Bailey was armed, police lawfully could frisk him. They could have applied a control hold while they frisked him, or could’ve handcuffed him while they frisked. But Bailey bolted before Evenson could touch him.
Police lost control
Video shows police lost control of the stop when Bailey bolted. Why did they lose control? Van’t Land’s vehicle and an unnamed officer were positioned to the south of Bailey. Evenson was positioned east. Van’t Land stood to the west with his back to a fenced yard. No one covered the north. To the north was a wide-open park. Bailey made a run for it.
Was Bailey’s run unforeseeable? In retrospect, it looks as if police blundered. Had Van’t Land positioned himself just a few steps to the north, Bailey’s chance of escape would have narrowed.
As Bailey darted away, Evenson reacted with a gesture in which he opened his arms as if surprised or frustrated. He did not instantly reach for his gun. He did not appear to perceive himself in mortal danger.
As Evenson opened his arms, the video shows Van’t Land with his gun already clearly out of his holster just a fraction of a second (.11 seconds) after Bailey moved. Data from Van’t Land’s holster sensor might be able to confirm whether he is incredibly quick on the draw, or if he drew his gun before Bailey moved.
Video shows Van’t Land’s finger properly on the barrel of his gun. Meaning, he would have to make a conscious choice to move his finger to the trigger and fire. Van’t Land ran after Bailey, who easily outdistanced him.
At this point, Evenson’s body cam turned away from Van’t Land and toward Bailey as Evenson, too, gave chase. Bailey ran for 2.23 seconds before police fired the first of eight shots at his back. The video shows indisputably that police gunned down a fleeing man.
Whether the shooting was justified seems to hinge on Van’t Land and Evenson’s subjective perceptions of danger. The video does not show circumstances in which the officers’ lives or safety was threatened. Rather, it suggests their pride was threatened. Police were caught out of position and flat-footed. They lost control of the situation despite their overwhelming advantage. They couldn’t match Bailey in a foot race. It’s not unimaginable that they fired their guns out of failure and frustration rather than fear for themselves or others.
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