Online readers of InForum and the Fargo Police Department’s Facebook page recently were able to watch squad car video of an arrest in which the suspect became confrontational after officers stopped him for a traffic violation.
It’s a riveting video, worthy of “Cops,” the television documentary series showing police in action, now in its 32nd season. It was also extraordinary.
Police Chief David Todd, who chose to release the video that was edited and included police play-by-play describing the events, couldn’t recall another instance of releasing “dash cam” evidentiary video before a case is closed.
Neither can we. The chief said he decided to deviate from standard protocol because it was important to respond to the suspect’s earlier allegations, published in The Forum, that his rights were violated and he was subjected to racial profiling.
Let’s be clear: The Forum reported the suspect’s comments because that’s what journalism is all about, getting both sides of the story. Most suspects decline comment; this one had plenty to say.
Suffice it to say that the 11-minute video calls into serious question the suspect’s version of events and entirely bolsters the police account. The video shows that the 26-year-old suspect didn’t cooperate with the officers and became confrontational, resulting in his bloody broken nose.
We applaud the chief’s decision to depart from standard protocol and release the video. We value transparency. Everybody benefits when officials provide the public with as much information as possible so people can judge for themselves how police officers exercise their authority and protect the public.
The dash cam video shows the suspect’s uncooperative behavior and the officers’ measured and professional response in far greater detail, and in far more compelling fashion, than a terse police report ever could. We commend the officers’ professionalism.
But it makes us wonder: Why don’t local police use “body cams”? Body cameras have virtually become standard protocol for police departments of any size.
We acknowledge that the cameras come with challenges, including the cost of buying the equipment and storing vast amounts of video. But as the dash cam of this arrest shows, video can provide valuable evidence enabling police to defend their conduct.
In this case, the police went to extraordinary lengths. They edited the video and Deputy Chief Ross Renner narrated, providing commentary as the stop and arrest unfolded. Because the suspect was black, and was accusing the officers of racial profiling and abusive treatment, the chief was understandably concerned many would jump to conclusions and assume his officers had acted improperly.
That commentary on important evidence makes us wonder: Did the police, through the video narration that essentially rebutted the suspect’s version, assume the role of prosecutor in the court of public opinion?
Now a precedent has been set. We can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen the next time police officers’ conduct is called into question and they don’t release video, if available.
Understandably, the public will be quick to assume the withheld video would not depict events in their favor. Todd staked out his criteria for breaking the department’s normal restraint in commenting on a pending case: “When I see something is going to be divisive, destructive, damage our community trust and hurt the credibility of the Fargo Police Department, I feel obligated to shed some light and understanding to the situation.”
In other words, the chief gets to decide, and he will release more information if he thinks the department could get a black eye. If he does so in the future — and we would welcome routine release of video in the name of disclosure and accountability — we hope it will omit the accompanying commentary.
That’s the role of prosecutors, in a courtroom presided over by a judge.