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Irrefutable evidence: how body cameras are changing police brutality cases inside and outside the courtroom

Recent cases of police misconduct reveal hopes for, limitations of body camera footage in promoting justice

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2021

As the former director of the Providence External Review Authority, Jose Batista was one of the first to see footage of Sgt. Joseph Hanley assaulting Rishod Gore, who is Black. The defense team representing Hanley would later call the assault “compliance strikes.” But in a January interview with The Herald, Batista had another word for it: “vengeance.” 

In the videos, Hanley punches, kicks, taunts, walks on and bounces on Gore’s head while he lies on the ground in handcuffs, according to the Providence Journal, which previously reported that the police did not tell Gore why he was being arrested, and charges against him were later dropped.

After a five-week-long trial, Hanley was found guilty of assault on March 18 and sentenced to one year’s probation, anger management classes and no contact with Gore. Based on video evidence from one officer’s body camera and another video from a bystander, Judge Brian Goldman, presiding over the trial, called Hanley’s testimony an “utter fabrication” of the events, according to the Providence Journal.

Hanley is expected to be fired after the appeals process. “Upon seeing the video, we immediately recommended termination and then worked with the Attorney General’s office to make sure the officer was prosecuted,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statement. “We will remain focused on continuing to building trust between the police and our residents,” he added.

Many see Hanley’s trial as a sign that body cameras can raise accountability in policing, but the magnitude of this change, as well as the mechanism for how video evidence creates change, are subject to debate. Some say that body cameras are strengthening repercussions for misconduct by establishing irrefutable evidence in the courtroom, while others emphasize how the footage provides visceral documentation of police violence that can shift public opinion to motivate more systemic change. Still others believe the benefits of cameras are limited.

Batista said that the videos showed numerous details that the Providence Police Department did not report before the videos were made public. The city initially told the public that Hanley struck Gore, according to Batista. They did not specify that, as is visible in the body camera footage, Hanley kneeled on Gore’s head, kicked his head and left side, stepped on the back of his legs and called him an “animal” and a “savage,” among other actions.

“There were so many things that we would have never known if not for the video,” Batista said.

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, believes the footage was instrumental in the trial. “Without the body cameras, there might have been a great possibility that (Hanley) would have been found innocent,” he said.

An investigation by PERA found that none of the officers on the scene were questioned internally for failing to report Use of Force concerns to the PPD after the incident. “For all of the police involved, this was normal to them,” Batista said.

Providence Chief of Police Hugh Clements Jr. did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation or on Batista’s claim.

Vincent said that body camera footage is a “powerful” tool that will lead to “more convictions” of officers who committed wrongdoing by getting rid of the “he said, she said” disagreement in the courtroom. Still, he believes that “the deck is stacked in favor of the officer” in the courtroom, regardless of video evidence.

But Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, remains concerned about the limits of body camera footage. “Oftentimes, the video camera footage that’s recorded doesn’t show everything,” he said, referencing the footage of police trailing Jhamal Gonsalves before his moped crashed and he was left with severe neurological impairment. While the crash sparked protests over police brutality in Providence, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha decided he would not bring criminal charges against the officers involved in the crash because there was not sufficient proof that they acted with criminal recklessness.

“The use of police body cameras is not a panacea,” Brown previously told The Herald. “But it certainly is a big step forward. It provides some evidence that can be used to try to figure out exactly what happened in any given case.”

Still, Brown said that many officers fail to turn on their body cameras when responding to incidents.

In January, the ACLU of Rhode Island wrote a letter to the PPD calling on them to enforce body camera compliance. “The body camera policy is regularly flouted, violations are rarely punished and the transparency these cameras are supposed to provide the public is undermined,” Brown wrote in the letter. Of the three officers on the scene when Hanley assaulted Gore, only one had their camera on, according to a PERA report.

Batista believes that body camera footage can be more influential outside the courtroom. He wrote in an op-ed in the Providence Journal that releasing the footage of Hanley’s assault to the public would “yield more meaningful, efficient and permanent justice” than “the one-count misdemeanor complaint produced by our law-enforcement apparatus behind closed doors.”

But Vincent believes that body camera evidence only goes so far in achieving systemic change to effectively prosecute police brutality. “We don’t need a video to mobilize to change the law. We just need the will to change the law,” he said. “I want (Hanley) convicted of something. I’m not placing anything more important than that.”

Body camera footage is not always legally accessible to the public. Rules regarding when body camera footage can be released fall under the parameters set by the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act. According to an order by the PPD, body camera footage must be released unless it risks the safety of individuals, violates the constitutional rights of the perpetrator, reveals “confidential sources or investigative techniques” or interferes with an ongoing investigation.

Settlements between state governments and people alleging police misconduct often include clauses that prevent video footage from being released to the public, according to Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, associate professor of sociology.

According to the Providence Journal, PERA had to subpoena the city to obtain the footage. PERA’s board later voted against releasing the videos to the public because it could interfere with Hanley’s ongoing trial. 

Six months after Batista saw the body camera footage, he released the recording against the vote of PERA’s board. Batista felt he “had no other choice” but to make the recording public in order to bring the “ugliness” of police brutality to light.

“There is a vast difference between what we think the police are doing,” Batista said, “and what they actually do.”

Additionally, Batista said that “after talking to experts, talking to judges, talking to lawyers, I started to feel more comfortable that it was a very low risk” in affecting the outcome of the trial.

The ACLU of Rhode Island agrees that the release of body camera footage “would often not have any impact on the ongoing investigation.”

Batista was fired soon after releasing the video. As of March 23, he is suing the City of Providence for wrongful and retaliatory termination, among other things. The lawsuit claims that the City was legally obligated to release the videos under the Access to Public Records Act, and that the PERA board violated the Whistleblower Act and infringed upon Batista’s rights of due process and freedom of speech by firing him.

“This is really the story of Executive Director Batista trying to comply with the law, trying to speak truth to the public and really trying to require PERA to do its job and engage in meaningful external review of police misconduct,” Batista’s lawyer, William Conley, said. “They wanted to silence him,” he added.

Providence City spokesperson Ben Smith wrote in an email to The Herald that the City would not comment on ongoing litigation.

Batista believed that he did the right thing by releasing the recording, but he still sees a long road ahead for equitable policing. “Civil rights and accountability (don’t) take place overnight,” he said.

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