In recent months, law enforcement leaders around the country have found themselves backed into the same corner following controversial police shootings captured on video.
Chiefs in Fresno, Charlotte, N.C., El Cajon and other cities initially refused to make the recordings public. But after days of protests and continuing demands for transparency, police leaders relented and released the video in the hope of reducing tensions and validating their accounts of what happened.
Faced with criticism over the fatal police shooting of a black 18-year-old this weekend, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck found himself in a similar position and opted on Tuesday to release surveillance footage that showed Carnell Snell Jr. holding a gun moments before he was shot.
Beck, generally a staunch advocate of keeping such videos confidential, said he acted out of concern for public safety as well as to correct claims by some who knew Snell who said that the teen didn’t have a gun.
“My huge concern is that the dueling narratives further divide the community,” he said.
The move underscored the challenge law enforcement agencies confront in trying to keep video of police shootings confidential during a time of heightened public scrutiny of how officers use force, particularly against African Americans. By releasing videos in these high profile cases, police departments have set up the expectation that they will make recordings public in the future.
Police leaders nationwide have long argued that the release of such videos can imperil investigations and violate the privacy of people captured on body or dashboard camera recordings. But proponents of making the videos public say recent events show that the recordings can be made public without endangering investigations and that departments should not be cherry picking which videos to release if they want to regain trust in minority communities.
“It’s clear that keeping video confidential isn’t going to work. It undermines public trust more than it advances it,” said Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of Southern California. “Body camera footage or other video doesn’t provide transparency if the public never gets to see it.”
Some law enforcement experts were critical of police leaders for giving in to protesters by releasing video they otherwise would not.
“What you’re seeing is basically a policy of appeasement,” said Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City and a former police captain in Newark, N.J.
Shane said state legislatures should decide the rules for making recordings public. In California, lawmakers have repeatedly failed to draw up statewide policies on the issue.
Snell was shot Saturday afternoon after he ran from a car that officers thought could have been stolen and reached an area between two houses with a closed metal gate that had “somewhat-transparent” mesh, Beck said Tuesday. Snell, the chief said, turned with the gun in his hand.
Officers felt Snell was an “imminent threat,” Beck said, and one fired three shots. Snell hopped the fence and again turned toward the officers, Beck said, still holding the gun. Police fired an additional three rounds.
Some residents questioned the police account, including whether Snell had a gun.
The decision to make the video of Snell public followed lengthy conversations among Beck, Johnson and Mayor Eric Garcetti, according to interviews. All three were concerned with the competing narrative about the killing.
The video came from a nearby business and shows a young man in a blue sweatshirt, identified by police as Snell, running through a strip mall and behind parked vehicles, holding what appears to be a gun in his left hand. The man crouches and appears to tuck the handgun into his sweatpants before running out of view of the camera. Moments later, a police officer is seen running in Snell’s direction.
Despite the decision to release the recording, Beck said the department had yet to decide if it would release video from body cameras worn by officers in a second deadly police shooting, which took place in South L.A. on Sunday. Beck has said that the video clearly refutes reports that some of the shots were fired when the man was on the ground. But releasing that video, he said, could set a standard for the LAPD in terms of complying with public records requests for such recordings.
Beck cited a number of reasons why he was hesitant to release body camera video, including concerns about the graphic nature of some recordings and the time it would take to sort through an enormous volume of video to comply with public records requests. But, the chief said, he was also worried frequent release of videos could violate the privacy of members of the public captured in recordings.
“I know, as a lifelong police officer, that I see people on the worst day of their lives,” he said. “People shouldn’t feel like when the police come to your house that what’s happened to you is going to be splashed all over the Internet.”
“It’s a shame that his life ended at 18 years old,” said Carlena Hall, center, a great-aunt of Carnell Snell Jr., who was fatally shot by LAPD police in South L.A. At left is Tranell Snell, 17, Snell’s sister, and at right is Debbie Washington, his aunt.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Marian Petersen, 71, whose last protest was in the 1965 Watts riots, marches down Central Avenue to the LAPD’s Newton Division station after officers shot a Latino boy Sunday night.(Allen J.Schaben / Los Angeles TImes)
Protestors march down Central Ave. to LAPD Newton Division to protest officers shooting a Latino man Sunday night. Protestors started at the site where police fatally shot a man Sunday in South Los Angeles.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A protester holds a sign in front of the LAPD Newton Divison station on Monday night. Protesters started their march at the site where police fatally shot a Latino man Sunday in South Los Angeles.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Carl Winzer lights candles at the scene where 18-year-old Carnell Snell Jr. was fatally shot by Los Angeles police officers.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
“I literally watched my brother catch his last breath,” said Tranell Snell, 17, the sister of Carnell Snell Jr. “I literally watched him, begging him to stay alive for me. Please, please, I begged my brother. Please! They let my brother sit there, sit there and die. They did not care.”(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Mike Miller sits amid dozens of candles that mark the house where 18-year-old Carnell Snell Jr. was fatally shot by Los Angeles police officers on Saturday.(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Jamari Brown, 13, holds a sign with other protesters at the site where a Latino man was fatally shot by officers Sunday night near 48th Street and Ascot Avenue.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
LAPD officers arrest a protester in the lobby of the police headquarters on suspicion of failure to disperse after Chief Charlie Beck gave details to the media about the shooting death of Carnell Snell Jr.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck speaks at a press conference addressing two recent officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Protesters shout at police officers inside the lobby of LAPD headquarters while Police Chief Charlie Beck provides details about the officer-involved shooting death of Carnell Snell Jr.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Protesters shout out their messege inside the lobby of LAPD headquarters after Police Chief Charlie Beck gave details to the media about the officer-involved shooting death of Carnell Snell Jr.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
LAPD officers move media and protesters away from the lobby of police headquarters after three protesters were arrested on suspicion of failure to disperse following a morning press conference.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Police Department disperses the crowd along 107th Street in Los Angeles. Four activists were arrested by LAPD.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
An activist is arrested by LAPD Sunday night after police gave orders to leave the area along 107th Street.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Police officers talk with family members and residents along 107th Street, while dispersing the crowd along Western Avenue and 107th Street in South Los Angeles.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
An activist is arrested by LAPD after they gave orders to clear the area along 107th Street. Protesters were rallying after police shot an 18-year-old in South L.A.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Police disperse the crowd along Western Avenue and 107th Street in Los Angeles, Calif., on Sunday night. Four activists were arrested by LAPD.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles police disperse the crowd along Western Avenue and 107th Street in South Los Angeles.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
LAPD disperse the crowd blocking Western Avenue after a vigil is held for Carnell Snell Jr., 18, who was fatally shot by police Saturday after a vehicle pursuit, in Los Angeles.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A women confronts the LA County Sheriif blocking the street after a vigil is held for Carnell Snell Jr., 18, who was fatally shot by LAPD police Saturday after a vehicle pursuit, in Los Angeles.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Jeromy Jackson lights candles at a vigil for his friend Carnell Snell Jr., 18, who was fatally shot by LAPD police Saturday after a vehicle pursuit.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials monitor protesters at 108th Street and Western Avenue after a vigil was held for Carnell Snell Jr. on Sunday.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Residents of a neighborhood near the intersection of Western Avenue and 107th Street arrange candles at a sidewalk memorial for Carnell Snell Jr. on Sunday afternoon.(Luis Sinco / )
A young woman leaves blue and white balloons at a sidewalk memorial to Carnell Snell Jr. on Sunday afternoon.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Monique Morgan, the mother of Carnell Snell, is comforted by a neighbor as they look at a makeshift memorial for Morgan’s son.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Bullet holes mark a steel gate at a residence along 107th Street in South Los Angeles, the scene of an officer-involved shooting on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. Police shot and killed Carnell Snell Jr., 18, after a brief car chase that ended near the intersection of 107th Street and Western Avenue in South Los Angeles.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A protestor holds up a sign in South Los Angeles after an officer-involved shooting.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A man confronts a police officer.(Barbara Davidson / )
A crowd gathers at Western Avenue, where they voiced their frustration with police.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Police line up along Western Avenue in Los Angeles after the shooting.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Activists protest after the police-involved shooting.(Barbara Davidson / )
Los Angeles police try to keep the peace.(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
The release of videos in other parts of the country has sometimes failed to fully answer questions over shootings.
Police in Charlotte released footage of the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott last month after protesters swarmed the city’s downtown area, damaging several office complexes, but the recording left unclear whether or not Scott was armed.
In Los Angeles, the video connected to Saturday’s shooting drew mixed reactions from Snell’s loved ones and protesters who packed into the weekly Police Commission meeting.
Snell’s great-aunt, Carlena Hall, said she wished the LAPD had informed her family ahead of time before releasing the video but said the recording clearly showed he had a gun.
“I don’t care if it hurts the LAPD or me, the truth needs to come out,” she said.
But the video doesn’t show the moment that the shots were fired, she noted. And she disputed the police account that Snell was shot when he turned toward officers while holding the firearm, saying he was no threat. She said Snell was mentally ill but did not elaborate. She said he had been arrested several times before and had run every time out of fear.
“That gun was never meant to be a threat to the Police Department,” Hall said.
At the commission meeting — where protesters booed Beck as he walked into the room — activist Melina Abdullah accused the department of trying to “assassinate” Snell’s character after his death. She and others called for the LAPD to make videos of other police shootings public.
“If they can release that video, they can release every damn video,” said Abdullah, an organizer with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Frustrations boiled for many in the audience, including Lisa Simpson, whose 18-year-old son, Richard Risher, was fatally shot by LAPD officers in July. Simpson has regularly attended the commission’s meetings since her son’s death.
“If I start killing your officers the way you killed my kid, is that equal?” she asked Beck. “I say an eye for an eye.”
The LAPD said Risher shot and wounded an officer before he was killed.
In an unusual move, two police commissioners, Cynthia McClain-Hill and Shane Murphy Goldsmith, remained behind to talk with the audience after the board adjourned to go into closed session. McClain-Hill urged the crowd to keep up the fight for police transparency, but also expressed concern over some of the remarks.
“You make me want to cry when you applaud the idea that we should take up arms and shoot others,” McClain-Hill told the audience, which immediately erupted in jeers and criticism.
“But that’s what they’re doing to us!” one woman replied.
When Beck was asked at his news conference about Simpson’s remarks, the chief sighed.
“I understand that she grieves, but the Los Angeles police officers have a very dangerous job,” Beck said, adding that he did not believe her comments rose to the level of a crime but that police would review them.
Beck acknowledged the anger surrounding the weekend’s shootings and said he believed some of the reaction has been compounded by other police killings around the country.
“We have all seen police-involved shootings that defy justification in other municipalities. I have seen them where I am at a loss to understand why,” he said. “I think that affects what happens on the streets of Los Angeles.”
Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.
8:25 p.m.: This article was rewritten with additional references to police shootings in other parts of the country and comments from Bibring and Shane.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Police Chief Charlie Beck and more details about the Police Commission meeting.
11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional information from the Police Commission meeting.
12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with reactions to the video and comments made during the L.A. Police Commission’s meeting.
8:45 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the video’s release.
This article was originally published at 8:15 a.m.