In the wake of protests and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office following the police shooting and death of Terrence Sterling, D.C. officials released graphic footage from an officer’s body-worn camera on Sept. 27 and the identity of the Metropolitan Police Department officer who shot him.
Sterling, a 31-year-old from Fort Washington, Md., was shot by MPD officer Brian Trainer, 27, a four-year member of the department, during the early morning hours of Sept. 11. Prior to the release of the video and Trainer’s identity, MPD reported that the officer shot Sterling, who it claims was driving erratically, when he attempted to ram his motorcycle into the passenger door of the police car the officer was exiting.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) release of Trainer’s name marked a departure from MPD precedent in which city officials decline to release the identities of officers involved in shootings. Trainer and his partner, who has not been named, have been placed on paid administrative leave.
Hundreds of protestors marched through Northwest D.C. on Monday evening demanding greater transparency from the mayor’s office regarding the investigation. Prior to the march, the protestors held a vigil near Third and M streets NW, where Sterling was shot.
Deputy Communications Director of the mayor’s office Nicole Chapple said the city released the five-minute video as a way to increase transparency with the public during the investigation.
“We deemed the body-worn camera footage to be in the public interest and consistent with the goals of the program and how it’s been establishing and creating a broader accountability between the law enforcement communities and transparent government,” Chapple said.
The body-worn camera footage begins one to three minutes after the shooting took place and shows Sterling bleeding on the ground as officers attempt to administer first aid to him.
“Keep looking at me, keep looking at me, buddy, keep looking at me, look at me,” an officer can be heard yelling. “Open them up, there you go. Open them up, open them up, open your eyes.”
The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in D.C. said Sterling had two bullet wounds — one in his neck and one in his back. MPD declined to comment.
Chapple said it is still unclear when the investigation, undertaken by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, will be complete.
“We tried to maintain open[ness] and transparency and we want the investigation to be done in a complete manner,” Chapple said.
During a press conference last week, the Sterling family’s attorney Jason Downs probed several details of the case, including whether there are any additional surveillance videos. According to Downs, the Sterling family was allowed to see a 60-to 90-second clip — which was not included in the public video — which allegedly contained footage of a police union representative urging Trainer to turn off his camera.
Downs further questioned why the hasty arrival of a police union representative on the scene preceded the arrival of medical attendants.
“The family and the community want to know, who do these officers call first?” Downs said. “Do they call an ambulance to protect an innocent civilian? Or did they call a police union representative to help Officer Trainer get his story straight?”
One point of contention surrounding Sterling’s death is why Trainer’s body-worn camera was not turned on until a few minutes after he shot Sterling. In response to this incident, D.C. officials have mandated that dispatchers remind officers to switch their cameras on before responding.
Harlan Yu, principal of Upturn, a company that released a scorecard with the Leadership Conference Aug. 2 in order to monitor body-worn cameras in cities across the country, said D.C.’s policy regarding those cameras has improved with the new measure. Yu also praised D.C.’s commitment to transparency in showing those who were captured on the videos the footage.
Overall, Upturn favorably categorized MPD’s policy of limiting officers’ discretion on when to record, making the MPD policy publicly and readily available and making footage available for individuals filing complaints. However, the policy was criticized for limiting retention of footage and for placing no restrictions on the use of biometric technologies like facial recognition to identify individuals in footage.
“I think it’s a positive step in the right direction,” Yu said. “D.C.’s policy is pretty good in requiring officers to record all interactions; they have a pretty long list of required events where body worn cameras need to be on.”
Yu noted by not having his camera on at the time of the incident, Trainer acted in violation of both former and current MPD policy. Yu said the body-worn camera policy must not be ignored in the future by officers if it is to be truly successful.
“It’s certainly the case that in the Terrence Sterling incident, that officer should have had his camera on, and it wasn’t, and that officer had pretty clearly violated D.C. police policy on this,” Yu said. “While the policy itself is pretty strong, it’s only as good as the enforcement of that policy by staff.”
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