The Rev. Jeffrey Brown finds the surveillance video persuasive, so much so that he gets up from where we’re sitting and pantomimes what happens in it: Boston Police Officer John T. Moynihan approaches a stopped vehicle last Friday, stands by the driver’s door, and taps on the edge of the roof to tell him to come out. As the driver, Angelo West, emerges, Moynihan shifts on his feet — and suddenly rears back as West shoots him in the face. Then, in Brown’s rendition, West leans over the fallen officer, as if to shoot him again. Another officer interrupts by firing at West, who flees while discharging his weapon.
The confrontation on Humboldt Street in Roxbury ended with West dead and Moynihan badly injured. People who’ve seen the video, taken by cameras mounted at a nearby business, say it makes West’s culpability plain.
Police Commissioner William Evans chose to share it with Brown and other African-American civic leaders in record time. This was both a bold move and a clear-headed response to the current moment: As social media amplify the power of the rumor mill, and as a nationwide debate about unequal justice intensifies, even long-standing practices in law enforcement need to adjust to new pressures from outside. “When I saw the tape,” Brown says, “and [Evans] said he was going to show us the tape, I just said, ‘Wow.’ ”
The footage from Roxbury bears a time stamp of 6:46 p.m. Friday, and interactions between police and spectators on the scene soon became edgy. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested the deaths of African-American men under dubious circumstances in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, raised the possibility that West’s death was part of that pattern.
In past cases involving so-called officer-involved deaths in Boston, video evidence came out only at the end of a long investigation. Authorities waited a year after the 2013 shooting of Darryl Dookhran by Boston police to release footage that supported officers’ account of the event. Yet by around noon Saturday, police were showing the video from Humboldt Avenue to a group that included Brown, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, state Representative Russell Holmes, civil rights attorney Rahsaan Hall, and others.
The participants I interviewed all said the speed of the disclosure was unprecedented — “a groundbreaking step,” said Culpepper, “in helping to resolve rumors and innuendoes and gossip” — and offered similar accounts of the video. Had the cops fired unprovoked? No. Had West been shot while handcuffed, as some rumors had it? No. Because civic leaders could review the evidence, they could reassure constituents that the Roxbury case wasn’t another Ferguson. “I had seen the video and thought, ‘We have nothing to hide here,’ ” Evans says. “The longer you wait to release information, the more people think something sinister’s going on.”
The age of ambient surveillance is upon us. The ubiquity of cellphone cameras and commercial security systems can help police flush out suspects; after the Marathon bombings, images from cameras on Boylston Street proved useful in identifying the Tsarnaev brothers. This same proliferation of cameras radically increases the likelihood that, when police tactics come into question, there will be video.
Intentionally or not, Evans has set a precedent. Civic leaders who see video that vindicates police officers will expect similar access in more ambiguous cases. There are legitimate reasons to restrict access to certain crime scene footage; authorities should protect bystanders and avoid influencing the testimony of eyewitnesses. But especially in tense moments, agreeing to some outside scrutiny shows a commitment to truth-seeking — even when the truth doesn’t flatter the police.
In practice, Boston police can’t share evidence without the assent of the district attorney’s office, which has formal authority over homicide investigations. Suffolk County DA Dan Conley admits he was skeptical when Evans proposed sharing the Humboldt Avenue footage. “My initial reaction is: It’s not the way I’ve done things for 30 years,” he says. “But it’s worked well in the last 72 hours.” Future cases, Conley says, should be decided on an individual basis.
The need for transparency will only grow. In the 1990s, crime in Boston dropped not least because of close relationships among police, clergy, and a variety of civic organizations. Today, the role of traditional institutions is in flux, as new forms of activism emerge via Twitter hashtags and Facebook pages. “We’re not in normal times,” says Brown, a veteran of the “Boston miracle” era. “At any one point in time, an officer can get involved with something, and the community’s reaction can be explosive.” For police, keeping the peace under these circumstances may mean building trust with a broader set of gatekeepers. But driving out misinformation with hard facts — one way or another — becomes all the more urgent.