At first blush, the story out of Reisterstown last week sounded all too familiar. A young African-American man goes into a pharmacy and tries to buy narcotic cough syrup with a fake prescription. The pharmacist calls the police, an officer arrives and the man runs. The officer gives chase, there is a confrontation and the officer fires his gun. The young man, who is unarmed, is struck three times and taken to the hospital, where he is pronounced dead. Absent any other information, it sounded like Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston, Cincinnati or Baltimore, take your pick — another young black man shot to death by a cop over nothing.
But on Friday, Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson publicly released a surveillance video that captured the crucial moments of the confrontation, and he posted it on the department's Facebook page. It shows the officer, who has been identified as David S. Earomirski, a 10-year veteran of the department, advancing down an alley with his gun drawn and then retreating. The young man, Keith Harrison McLeod, 19, of Washington, advances quickly toward the officer and reaches behind his back with one arm as if grabbing something. He whips the arm around toward the officer, and the officer fires.
A department spokeswoman had previously described those details, but the release of the video had the effect of instantly quelling what had the potential to become a community uproar. The video isn't perfect evidence — for example, it has no audio — and it is difficult to tell precisely when all three shots were fired. The investigation is not yet complete, but the video nonetheless adds credence to the notion that the officer was justified in his actions.
Not long ago, the department would likely have held on to the video for the duration of its investigation, at least, even though it appeared to exonerate the officer. But Chief Johnson said Friday that quick release of video evidence like this is going to be the "new normal." The public's expectation to see for itself is now simply too great to ignore. In future such cases, he said, he will release such evidence as soon as the state's attorney has had a chance to review it and discuss it with him.
In a statement today, the department stressed that the chief will make case-by-case decisions in cooperation with the state's attorney's office in an effort to meet the public's expectations for transparency without jeopardizing investigations. Provided certain safeguards are maintained, like interviewing potential witnesses before the release of the video to ensure their stories aren't tainted — which the police did in this case — that's the right policy. At a time when trust in law enforcement is low, seeing is believing.
This incident vindicates County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's decision to buck the recommendation of a county work group and move forward with a plan to equip officers with body cameras. It is nothing short of sheer luck that the crucial moments of this confrontation happened to be caught on video — had it occurred 10 feet further up or down the alley, the camera likely would have recorded nothing of consequence. Body cameras solve that problem and provide audio, too. They are not perfect, of course — had one been employed in this case, it might not actually have told the story as well as the overhead camera did — but they certainly increase the odds that some objective record of a police-civilian confrontation will exist.
From the county police's perspective, this was an almost ideal test case for Chief Johnson's new policy. The video evidence is fairly clear and lends support to the officer's actions, particularly when coupled with a witness' statement that the officer repeatedly warned "You don't want to do this," and that McLeod repeatedly said, "I'm going to kill you." The real test will be if and when a video appears to show an officer acting with unnecessary force or escalating a situation. Perhaps even trickier would be video that is more open to interpretation. In that case, releasing it before an investigation is complete and before the state's attorney has decided whether to file charges could have the effect of raising tensions rather than diminishing them. Having set the standard, Chief Johnson is now bound to follow it, even when it's difficult. The only thing that can raise public suspicion faster than declining to release video evidence is declining to do in contradiction of your own policy.