Political activists have long argued that police officers should be required to wear body cameras as a means to hold policy accountable for misconduct. But a recent U.S. Fifth Circuit opinion (Terrence Harmon; Sherley Woods, as Administratrix for the Estate of O’Shae Terry v. City of Arlington Texas and Bau Tran) shows that body cameras and dash cameras can have benefits for law enforcement agencies as well: by exonerating officers from accusations of misconduct.
Background OF THE EXCESSIVE FORCE Case
The Fifth Circuit case arose out of a traffic stop in the city of Arlington, Texas. A police officer pulled over O’Shae Terry for driving with an expired license plate. Mr. Terry was driving a large SUV with a running board. During the traffic stop, the officer advised Mr. Terry that he smelled marijuana in the vehicle, and he needed to search it. Officer Bau Tran, the defendant in this lawsuit, stood by the SUV’s passenger side while the first officer verified Mr. Terry and his passenger’s personal information.
At this point, Officer Tran’s body camera and the other officer’s dash camera tell the rest of the story. Mr. Terry began to raise his SUV’s driver window and reach for the ignition. Officer Tran shouts “hey!” at Mr. Terry and climbs on to the SUV’s running board. He reached in to the SUV’s passenger window, yelling “hey stop!” Just as Mr. Terry began to lurch the vehicle forward, Officer Tran drew his weapon, pointed it at him, and fired five rounds. The SUV careened across the opposite lane and jumped the curb. Officer Tran fell off, and was nearly struck by the SUV’s rear tires. Mr. Terry’s passenger took control and stopped the SUV. Mr. Terry was taken to the hospital but did not survive.
Mr. Terry’s family filed a wrongful death suit against Officer Tran under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that he had used excessive force against Mr. Terry. The family also sued the City of Arlington, alleging that it had a policy of using excessive force with a racial bias.
Officer Tran and the City moved to dismiss the family’s claims, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity. They argued that Officer Tran reasonably believed that he was at risk of serious bodily injury, and thus was justified in using deadly force. The district court agreed and dismissed the claims. The family appealed to the Fifth Circuit.
BODY CAMERA FOOTAGE CRITICAL TO FIFTH CIRCUIT DISMISSAL
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, relying heavily on a detailed analysis of Officer Tran’s body camera footage. The court noted that “the video of this ten-second event [was] critical.” The court used the body camera footage to identify precisely when Officer Tran jumped on the SUV’s running board, when Mr. Terry started the vehicle, and when Officer Tran drew his weapon. The body camera footage showed that Officer Tran climbed on the running board before Mr. Terry started driving, and that Officer Tran did not draw his weapon until the SUV was already moving—with Officer Tran holding on to the side.
The clarity from the body camera footage allowed the court to narrowly identify the window during which Officer Tran had to decide whether he was at risk of serious physical harm. This was the brief moment between when the SUV started moving and when he drew his weapon. The court held that anyone who faced the risk of falling off of a moving vehicle was at substantial risk of injury. The body camera video confirmed this theory, showing Officer Tran narrowly avoiding injury when he fell off moments after shooting Mr. Terry. Having seen Officer Tran nearly run over by Mr. Terry’s rear tires, the court had no trouble in concluding that Officer Tran reasonably believed he was at risk of serious injury when the SUV started moving with him on the running board.
Body Cameras Are Vital Tools to Limit Police Liability
In a broad lens, body cameras and dash cameras make civil rights lawsuits significantly shorter and easier. These lawsuits are fact-intensive, with courts scrutinizing every detail of any citizen encounter with a police officer to determine whether the police officer acted appropriately. This process can largely be circumvented if the police officer can simply provide video of the encounter and allow the court to make up its own mind. Body cameras and dash cameras help both citizens and police preserve an accurate record of what actually happens during what are often chaotic encounters. As such, they are vital tools not only for police accountability, but also to limit police liability.