Photo: Two officers fired Tasers, but police say the man continued to move toward them so they shot him. But officer Jason Fletcher, not shown, was later charged with manslaughter.
One consulting firm is contracted with 100 California police agencies
The videos showing what police euphemistically call “officer-involved shootings” follow the same formula: a 3-D map of the scene, 911 dispatch tapes and text set up a narrative before viewers see selected body cam footage.
In most cases, a police chief or sheriff opens the video explaining why the shooting was justified. Often, the chief is reading from a script written by an outside consultant. The edited camera footage may not even show the actual use of force – an effect far different from a raw cellphone or body cam video of a confrontation that leaves watchers wondering, “Why did they have to shoot?”
To comply with a 2019 state transparency law, California police agencies are turning to public relations firms to produce slick and persuasive videos explaining police shootings, including some of the more controversial police killings in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
One firm run by former TV news reporters, Vacaville-based Critical Incident Videos LLC, has contracted with about 100 agencies up and down the state. The list includes police departments in Oakland, Hayward, San Leandro, Vallejo, Sonoma County, Concord, Menlo Park and Pittsburg. The agency’s résumé includes videos of several highly criticized deaths in recent years, including Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo, Steven Taylor in San Leandro and Joseph Perez in Fresno.
Police agencies argue that they are putting out the material to comply with Assembly Bill 748, the 2019 law requiring that body camera footage of police shootings and other significant force incidents be released within two months. But civil rights attorneys and families of people killed by police say the videos are a vehicle for law enforcement to create an early narrative and spin the story in their favor while keeping raw footage out of public view in violation of another state law.
“This is not about free speech, this is not about getting the facts out to the public, this is about spinning it in the best possible PR for the police departments,” said civil rights attorney Michael Haddad. “The reason we know that is they deny the victims and their families access to this information and these videos so that the departments can get their story out to the public first.”
Police critics point to the Vallejo police’s presentation of the controversial police killing of Monterrosa as a prime example. In the video, Chief Shawny Williams tells viewers the officer’s justification for shooting Monterrosa.
Officer Jarrett Tonn and two other detectives were inside an unmarked truck when they drove up on the 22-year-old. Williams says the detective believed Monterrosa was “turning toward the officers in a crouching, half-kneeling position as if in preparation to shoot” and moved “his hands toward his waist area and grab what appeared to be the butt of a handgun.”
A viewer might believe Williams is presenting evidence to support those words, but in fact the video footage shows none of this. Instead, Williams intones, “That object sticking out from Mr. Monterrosa’s waist area turned out to be this.” Then a slide shows an evidence photo of a hammer. Body camera footage from the detectives flashes onscreen, but it shows only the inside of the truck and the barrel of Tonn’s gun as he shot through the windshield at Monterrosa.
A text slide in the video acknowledges there is no footage showing Monterrosa before he was shot.
Monterrosa’s death sparked outcry in Vallejo, and it was later learned the truck’s windshield – a piece of evidence – was destroyed, resulting in an internal investigation and at least one lieutenant being placed on leave. The Attorney General and the state Department of Justice this week announced that the department would review the Monterrosa case to determine if criminal charges should be filed.
Emails obtained through a records request show just how quickly after an incident the work can begin. Less than three hours after San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher shot and killed 33-year-old Steven Taylor inside Walmart last year, the department began crafting its message. Video captured by shoppers had already circulated widely online, stirring outrage at the shooting, which seemed to occur after the baseball bat-wielding Taylor had stopped menacing the officer.
Before sending out a news release, then-Chief Jeff Tudor emailed Critical Incident Videos LLC, asking them to begin stitching together video and audio of the fatal encounter. He got a reply almost immediately: “Getting started,” the email from the firm to Tudor read.
San Leandro police captains gathered body camera footage and 911 tapes and sent over third-party videos. A script was written for Tudor to read on camera, then reviewed and revised by attorneys for the city, according to the emails. In the video, Tudor says Fletcher killed Taylor after he refused orders to put down the bat and Taser shots failed to stop his movement toward the officer. What is never mentioned is what independent investigators for San Leandro later concluded: By engaging Taylor so directly, Fletcher put himself in harm’s way, missing the chance to de-escalate the confrontation.
“We know this incident has garnered much attention in our community and that’s why we are releasing this video now before the investigation is complete so that we can provide as much information as possible to our community as the process continues,” Tudor said.
The edited video was released four days after Taylor was killed on April 18, 2020. Despite the video’s contentions, Fletcher has since been charged with manslaughter.
Another video criticized for not telling the full story was the Hayward Police Department’s release of footage in the June 1, 2020, shooting of a 17-year-old, during a night of looting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
The video, also produced by Critical Incident Videos LLC, is from the body-worn camera of an officer who shot at the teen. Police Chief Toney Chaplin, reading from a script, told viewers the teen drove out of a parking lot, where a 911 caller reported stores were being looted, directly at an officer outside his patrol vehicle.
But the blurry body cam footage, from a poor vantage point, never shows how close the driver came to the officer before shots were fired. Adante Pointer, an attorney representing the boy and his family, said Hayward police still have not released all the footage from that night; multiple officers were on scene.
“It’s a slick marketing piece that is being put together, in my opinion, to justify the police version of the events and not what the law was initially intended for, which is to give transparency to the public, so the public can evaluate whether what the police did was wrong or right,” Pointer said.
In response to questions over the video presentation, a Hayward police spokeswoman said the department “makes a case-by-case determination on releasing video captured on body-worn cameras and other relevant videos such as surveillance video and cell phone video. Ongoing investigations by the department or other agencies may affect the timing of release of video of interest to the community, and the City complies with state law in this regard.”
As police agencies scurry to comply with AB 748, open records advocates are concerned another state law is being ignored. SB 1421, the landmark police transparency bill, requires departments to release full footage of police video of incidents that result in serious bodily injury or death.
Numerous such requests by the California Reporting Project, which includes this newspaper, remain outstanding. In response to a request from a law firm requesting raw footage of a November 2020 fatal shooting in Oakland, the OPD released only the edited video. Attorneys representing victim families have said in many cases the only way to get the unedited footage is to sue.
“Bottom line is they can edit the video in order to withhold certain sensitive information but there’s no provision in either law that says you can withhold until your vendor produces a video package for distribution,” said Glen Smith, a media lawyer with the First Amendment Coalition.
Laura Cole, a former journalist and the executive director of Critical Incident Videos, dismisses the criticism of her firm’s presentations, saying she sees her job as providing facts about an incident. “Someone from the outside needs to put out the video and provide context,” said Cole, who also runs Cole Pro Media, another police consulting firm.
Cole said she encourages her clients to release all the footage separately from the videos her firm produces. Her firm does not release mug shots or do anything to demonize a person, she said; for instance, it does not mention if they have a criminal record because it doesn’t pertain to the incident.
“Never should these videos criminalize someone, they should not justify the officers’ actions, there should never be spin,” Cole said. “It’s really important they have to be factual, they should not be trying to make the cops look good, they shouldn’t be to make the cops look bad either.”
Families like the Juan Garcia family in Napa are still waiting for full release of videos, and feel the police have antagonized them. They do not have control over when police release videos, or what they show about the final moments of their loved ones.
Napa County sheriff’s Deputy David Ackman shot and killed Garcia, a father of three who cooked in a restaurant, on Oct. 5 after pulling Garcia over for driving without headlights on. Ackman shot Garcia, who was unarmed, six times, and the family said the sheriff’s office pressured them into coming in to watch the footage and wouldn’t allow them at the police news conference.
“They’ve done everything they can to maintain that control over the situation, to this day haven’t released the coroner’s report, we cannot finalize the death certificate, we don’t have the dashcam, we don’t have the rest of the body cam,” said his cousin Daniela Bazan.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions and not everything is going to be revealed in the video footage, but it will give some clarity and some sort of resolve to the family in a situation where we really are powerless.”