Add the fatal South Hill confrontation on June 6 to the list of controversies that would’ve been easier to clear up if law enforcement officers wore body cameras.
Initial reports said William Berger, 34, was acting erratically when approached by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies outside the Oz Fitness Center at East 55th Avenue and Regal Street. Berger was banging on vehicles, and deputies tried to calm him. When the incident escalated, the deputies jolted him with Tasers. Berger died when he stopped breathing. A witness at that time said a deputy walked up to Berger without saying anything and deployed his Taser. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Department disputed this. Berger was reportedly suffering from a recent head injury, which might have contributed to his behavior.
On Thursday, the public learned that one of the deputies twice applied a neck hold while struggling with Berger, who had martial arts training. Berger stopped resisting after the second neck hold, and shortly thereafter stopped breathing, according to Washington State Patrol Trooper Jeff Sevigney, who conducted a review of the incident. In addition, the witness quoted on June 6 acknowledged that he may not have seen the entire incident.
The medical examiner has yet to rule on the cause of death.
So what actually happened? If the neck hold was the cause of death, was it necessary? Unfortunately, that might come down to dueling interpretations because the confrontation wasn’t captured on camera.
On May 25, a deputy sheriff shot and killed a Spokane Valley man after he allegedly brandished a knife. Some people have questioned whether that level of force was necessary.
These types of cases are frustrating for the public because the victims can’t tell their side. The accounts of witnesses sometimes vary and sometimes change. And in some cases, there are no other witnesses.
It’s also frustrating for law enforcement because unfair allegations of excessive force aren’t always easy to disprove. And the air of distrust caused by previous use-of-force cases puts agencies on the defensive.
This is why many law enforcement leaders support the use of body cameras. Coeur d’Alene police officers started wearing the pager-size cameras last year. They’re also used in Airway Heights and Post Falls, and on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich supports their use. So do Spokane Mayor David Condon and the City Council. Spokane police Chief Frank Straub doesn’t object, but he says their use must by bargained with the police union because it changes work conditions.
We think cameras ought to be considered non-negotiable tools that aid officers, such as better cars, computers and weapons. The cameras cost about $800 to $900 apiece. Their value is in helping gather evidence, improving the accuracy of reports, exposing exaggerated citizen complaints and showing the public that officers have nothing to hide. They also can head off expensive litigation for disputed confrontations.
We see no value in delaying implementation.