The 61-year-old man was standing on a Roxbury street, filming Boston Police as they stopped a teenager, when a sergeant walked toward him and waved what appeared to be a seized firearm. The 2½-minute film is now the subject of an internal affairs investigation.
The gun was a realistic-looking toy, according to police. But civil rights advocates and the man who recorded the video say it does not matter that it was fake because it appeared real and because the sergeant’s actions caused the photographer to feel threatened.
The video shows the sergeant questioning the man about why he was videotaping. The sergeant said he did not consent to be taped. Then, the sergeant walks over and holds the gun close to the camera, saying, “That’s why we’re here.” The sergeant does not point the gun at the man.
“His intention was to put that in my face and produce fear. That was his intention,” said the man, who asked to be identified by the name Brother Lawrence because he said he feared retaliation for speaking out. “I thought my life was in jeopardy there.”
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said he was “disturbed” by the video, which was posted to the police accountability website CopBlock.org.
“As commissioner, I want to extend my apology to the individual for the behavior of my officer,” Evans said. “This type of behavior is not indicative of the type of behavior that I expect of my officers. I hope to use this as a teaching moment moving forward.”
The sergeant involved, Henry Staines, has been counseled that citizens have a constitutional right to videotape officers doing their jobs, Evans said, and an internal affairs investigation has begun. Staines is expected to meet with Lawrence, Boston NAACP President Michael Curry, and Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross on Friday, and a reminder has gone out to all officers that citizens can legally videotape them, Evans said.
The video was taken Monday on Edgewood Street, after police responded to a 911 call about two boys playing with a gun, which turned out to be fake. Both boys ran. The boy depicted in the video was 14, according to police.
Evans said Staines was acting in frustration, as replica guns pose a danger. They are increasingly popular among youths, Evans said, and with tensions over police shootings high nationwide, Staines was upset at the thought that officers could have shot a child over a fake gun.
“It doesn’t excuse his behavior,” Evans said. “He was clearly out of line.”
The video, shot across the street from police, shows officers standing around the boy. Staines walks over and asks Lawrence if he is filming, then says, “Want to jump in the cruiser with us someday? Drive with us?”
“Why do you say that?” Lawrence asks.
“I don’t know, just thought you might be interested in getting some real-life footage,” replies Staines, whose face is not shown in the tape at that moment.
Lawrence asks if there is anything wrong with what he’s doing, and Staines replies, “No, I just always question when you’re taking video of us.” As the camera pans toward Staines’s face, Staines says, “I’m not giving you my permission to film me.”
Staines walks away, but a few moments later, he can be heard off camera saying, “Here, photo guy — No, no, no, don’t put the video down, put it up, this is why we’re here.”
Staines is shown striding toward Lawrence with the replica gun held aloft.
“See that, see that, that’s why we’re here,” Staines says, pressing it directly to the lens of the camera. “Have a good day. Bye.”
Staines walks away. A few seconds later, an officer off camera can be heard telling Lawrence that the person being arrested is a juvenile who did not consent to being filmed. The video ends.
Lawrence said he was afraid he would be arrested or injured. He said he knew it was his constitutional right to film police, but ultimately shut his video off because he felt the police were “feeling antagonized,” and he was by himself.
Lawrence said he thought the gun was real, and advocates said that because it looked real, it did not matter that it was fake.
“It’s all about perception,” said Curry, of the NAACP. “If you walk up and say, ‘Hey, here’s a BB gun I took off this kid,’ and you say it loudly as you approach, maybe you minimize it. But the officer’s tone was very upset, he was very bothered that he was being videotaped, and he wanted to indignantly say, ‘This is why we do this work.’ ”
Curry said the video was disturbing because it showed Staines was either ignorant of or ignoring a citizen’s constitutional right to film police, and because Staines’s “emotional state” created a toxic and adversarial relationship.
“Turn this around, make that observer do something like that to one of those police officers. Would he be arrested?” said Carl Williams, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “In communities of color, people feel frustrated. They think, ‘How come we have to obey the law, and the people who are telling us to obey the law don’t?’ Whether or not that view is true, I think it crushes people’s souls to say, ‘Why do we have to live like this?’ ”
According to a log of internal affairs investigations provided to the Globe, Staines has had nine cases against him between 1993 and 2014. None of the allegations against him were sustained or confirmed, according to a police spokesman.
Lawrence said he wants Boston Police to make a public service announcement telling Bostonians of their right to videotape police.
“I want to see this as an opportunity to have some freedom,” said Lawrence.
Thomas Nolan, an associate professor in criminology at Merrimack College and a former Boston Police lieutenant, said the video cast police in an unfavorable light. But he noted that, overall, the command staff has developed good relationships in the community.
“Boston is emerging as a national model for how police agencies ought to respond to situations involving civil unrest,” Nolan said. “Something like this, I hope it doesn’t undermine all the good work they’ve been doing.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.