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California

Fresno police break ranks with other departments by releasing shooting video from body cameras

Warning: Video has graphic content. Body-camera footage released by the Fresno Police Dept. shows the June 25 shooting of Dylan Noble.

The cellphone video shows a man’s life ending violently at the hands of Fresno police officers, who shoot him twice as he lies on the ground.

There are no words exchanged, no why – only the brutal end.

The recording, filmed by a bystander from a distance, fueled protests and prompted calls for an FBI investigation.

But Fresno police this week took the unusual step of releasing footage from body cameras worn by officers at the shooting – recordings that showed the deadly encounter in clear and graphic detail.

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In doing so, the department broke ranks with other law enforcement agencies that have resisted making similar footage public. The cameras are becoming increasingly popular with police departments at a time of heightened public scrutiny of police use of force, especially against African Americans.

Because these incidents are playing out in the court of public opinion, departments are under pressure to play that game.
Derek Hsieh, executive director of Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.

In the videos from the body cameras worn by the Fresno officers, 19-year-old Dylan Noble ignores repeated commands to show both his hands and to get down on the ground. He walks toward the officers, gripping an object in his right hand that turned out to be a 4-inch plastic container with malleable clay.

Just before the first bullet hits him, Noble says that he hates his life.

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As more agencies equip their officers with the cameras, questions about whether the footage should be released are taking center stage in controversial shootings like the one in Fresno. The case highlights the intense pressure police chiefs face to make video evidence public when confronted with fierce criticism.

“Because these incidents are playing out in the court of public opinion, departments are under pressure to play that game,” said Derek Hsieh, executive director of the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. “There’s a real need for agencies to get ahead of misinformation.”

Police chiefs have raised a number of concerns about making footage public. Among them are the possibility of jeopardizing investigations, potentially inciting violent protests and violating the privacy of crime victims and others caught on the recordings. 

On Thursday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, whose practice has generally been to not release recordings, said he was open to releasing certain footage “at the proper time in the proper framework.” There are still privacy concerns, he said. And he wants to ensure that the public release of video won’t interfere with criminal or administrative investigations.

“I don’t want to ever impair that because of a rush to release,” he said. “But I’m not opposed to coming up with a way where we can satisfy more concerns here.”

Several police commissioners, including board president Matt Johnson, agreed that the department should revisit the issue as cameras are distributed to thousands of LAPD officers. Withholding the video should be the exception, not the rule, said Robert Saltzman, a longtime police commissioner.

“It’s in the officer’s interest and the department’s interest – as well as the public’s interest – to have this video made more available,” Saltzman said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department plans to equip its deputies with cameras but has not purchased them yet or crafted a policy for the release of video footage. However, Sheriff Jim McDonnell “is committed to being transparent” and will release as many videos as he can, balancing the public’s need to know with privacy and other issues, said a spokesman, Cmdr. Eddie Rivero.

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“After all the legal issues and concerns have been met, our expectation is that we will be putting out videos,” Rivero said.

Last December, the department was confronted with questions over why deputies opened fire on a man crawling on the ground in Lynwood – an incident captured on cellphone video posted online. The footage showed the man being repeatedly shot. 

In response, McDonnell released a video and still photos obtained by the department that showed the man gripping a gun before the shooting. The gun was not visible in the cellphone video.

Max Huntsman, the Sheriff’s Department’s inspector general, applauded McDonnell’s decision in the Lynwood case. But he cautioned that the department needs to develop a clear policy without falling into the trap of releasing only those videos that exonerate deputies.

“If it’s a ‘good’ shooting where there’s no question about the person being armed, you see footage of a gun, but every time there’s a serious question about was this person armed, and the video doesn’t come out, then people are going to scratch their heads and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Huntsman said.

Hsieh, the union executive director, said he does not generally oppose the release of body camera videos as long as deputies are notified in advance.

Many California police departments have been looking to state lawmakers for guidance, but battles over what sort of recordings, if any, should be released ended this year in a virtual stalemate as proposals on the issue died in the Legislature. The result is that police departments throughout the state have been left on their own to decide how much access to provide.

That has left law enforcement agencies to improvise.

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Oakland police, for example, allowed a group of journalists last year to view recordings from body cameras worn by officers involved in two controversial incidents that resulted in the death of civilians.  A robbery suspect was shot by officers in one of the encounters and another man died after a foot chase in the other. 

The Oakland Police Department said at the time that showing reporters the footage would correct misleading rumors amid protests over the deaths, but civil rights attorneys criticized police for not making the recordings public. A month later, the department released edited videos from the body cameras to the San Francisco Chronicle and a local TV News station in response to a Public Records Act request.

Earlier this year, Fresno police released recordings of officers shooting a shirtless man in September almost immediately after ordering him to get on the ground. Police said the video shows the man reaching for a black spray nozzle in his shorts pocket that closely resembles a pistol.

Sid Heal, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s commander and use-of-force expert, said police agencies should look at each incident to decide whether body camera footage should be released.

In Fresno, Heal said, “people were jumping to the wrong conclusions without the video.” The recording, he said, showed “that there was more to” the encounter between police and Dylan Noble.

In some cases, we are one spark away from a forest fire and I am praying that this video doesn’t serve as that spark in our community.
Chief Jerry Dyer

In releasing the videos, the city’s police chief said he hoped the move wouldn’t spark violence. He said he had intended to make the videos public last Friday but waited because of the killings on Thursday of five Dallas police officers at a protest against the shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, La., and Minneapolis. Noble was white.

“The tensions are high, not only here but in other agencies and cities across America,” Chief Jerry Dyer said. “In some cases, we are one spark away from a forest fire and I am praying that this video doesn’t serve as that spark in our community.”

Noble’s father, Darren, had pushed for the release of the videos in hopes they would inspire an outside investigation into the shooting, said Warren Paboojian, an attorney for the father. Paboojian said the recordings from the body cameras gave “more information that the police did not follow proper protocol” and dangerously escalated the situation.

The final two shots, captured by both the cellphone and body camera videos as Noble lay wounded on the ground, were “tantamount to a homicide,” Paboojian said.

Times Staff Writers Matt Hamilton and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

kate.mather@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

For more law enforcement news, follow us on Twitter: @katemather and @cindychangLA

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