A body camera video of a Spokane police officer’s interaction with an apparently intoxicated man has gone viral, receiving over half a million views in just two days.
Although a success in terms of online views, the video raises legal and ethical questions about how recordings of police interactions with the public are shared.
The man’s attorney and the ACLU are questioning the Spokane Police Department’s motives in posting the video online, especially because the suspect’s name was used in the video description and his face is in full view.
“I haven’t even received any evidence yet for the case,” said Frank Cikutovich, the lawyer representing the man in the video. “Who are we paying in the city to post on Facebook like this and put (in) quippy hashtags?”
Spokane police spokeswoman Officer Teresa Fuller said the department has created a position with responsibilities that include finding and redacting body camera footage for public relations purposes. Fuller said she hopes the job is made a full-time position.
Body camera footage of routine incidents gives the department an important tool to help the public better understand officers’ jobs, she said.
“Those didn’t make the news before because we had nothing to show for it,” Fuller said. “These types of videos are ones that our citizens want to – and should – see.”
The video appeared on SPD’s Facebook page Wednesday, where it has garnered almost 4,000 shares and more than 400,000 views. The media site Worldstar Hip Hop, which often features videos of people fighting, picked it up a day later, where it has received over 150,000 views.
The four-minute video from Aug. 1 shows the young man in downtown Spokane arguing with Sgt. Eric Kannberg. The man, identified as Cory Counts in the video’s description, appears belligerent and repeatedly challenges a calm Kannberg to touch him as he stands a few feet from the officer.
Counts appears to be on the phone with someone intermittently throughout the video, though he also appears to believe he’s recording the officer.
“I dare you to touch me,” Counts says in the video. “All of this is being recorded.”
Throughout the video, Kannberg asks Counts to step aside so he can help another man in the background who is on the ground. At about the three-minute mark, Counts slaps Kannberg’s hands, prompting the officer to tell him he’s under arrest. In response, Counts runs across the street and falls. The video cuts to Kannberg arresting Counts a short time later.
“Get on your stomach,” Kannberg says. “Put your arms out to the side. You’re under arrest.”
The description of the video on the SPD’s Facebook page appears to make light of the situation, saying the video should be filed in the #PatienceIsAVirtue file” and that Counts “even used his #PhoneAFriend option.” Many of the comments on Facebook commend the officer’s actions, heralding him for staying calm.
But Cikutovich said Kannberg likely is calm because he knows he’s being recorded, while Counts is not aware of the rolling camera.
“I think it was twofold: one, to show how awesome the police officer was, who knew he was recorded, and two, to shame Mr. Counts,” Cikutovich said, on why he believes the video was released the way it was. “If they want to just show how awesome the officer is, they could have blurred the video and not released his name.”
Fuller said the video was released to show the public what much of police work is like and how well officers usually handle difficult situations.
Shankar Narayan, director of technology at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Seattle office, has a different opinion. Narayan had previously disagreed with a state bill signed into law last year that essentially handed all responsibility of police body camera video evidence to police departments, including letting them decide what to cut out of the video and when and where they can be released.
He said the video is a clear example of why state legislators need to create restrictions on police body camera footage.
“It’s possible the SPD was within the letter of the law statewide in posting the video, but the question arises, why did they post it?” Narayan said. “As you see, those are cameras that capture people not necessarily at their best moments. It’s entirely at the discretion of the police as to whether they’re released or not.”
And it’s the circumstances of the videos’ posting that has Cikutovich most upset. After Counts was released from jail, his lawyer met with him and asked what had happened that night. Counts said he blacked out and couldn’t remember anything, Cikutovich said.
When the SPD posted the video Wednesday, Cikutovich said, it was the first time he knew any details of the case – and was seeing it at the same time as thousands of other viewers.
“It just surprised me to see that the Spokane Police Department would put a video of a pending case on the internet like that,” he said.
Cikutovich and Narayan said police had an agenda other than just simply making the officer look better. In past cases, Narayan said, the suspect’s name wasn’t released and their face was blurred, unless the law enforcement agency was trying to damage the suspect’s character.
“They can put these narratives in place, where words appear on the screen before and after the video,” Narayan said. “If these cameras are meant to hold police departments accountable, then why are we handing them the keys to mount a PR campaign before these facts are seen?”
But Fuller denies such claims, saying the video was meant only to inform the public about the department’s good work.
“Our intent was to show the extreme amount of patience our officer demonstrated during that encounter,” she said. “Because the adult subject had been arrested and the video was taken in public, no redaction was necessary.”
Cikutovich said Friday that Counts is considering filing a lawsuit against the department.
Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan acknowledged the controversy surrounding the video, but praised the officer’s work and said he didn’t have a problem with the city posting it, despite the explicit language used by Counts.
“The subject of that video really acted, for a lack of a better word, disorderly,” he said. “I think that the police officer showed great professionalism and restraint in the way the incident was handled.”
In an interview with The Spokesman-Review in March 2014, before body cameras were widely used by the department, then-police Chief Frank Straub appeared hesitant about releasing embarrassing videos from body cameras.
“We see people at their best and we see people at their worst, and I wonder sometimes why it’s necessary to record some of those interactions,” Straub told The Spokesman-Review. “People that are grieving. People that are traumatized. People that are under the influence. Really? At the end of the day, why is that something that’s good for public consumption?”
Staff writer Chad Sokol contributed to this report.
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