Human Rights

St. Louis Cops Turn Dash Cam Off in Middle of Arrest, Brutally Beat Suspect

An officer yells, "Hold up. We're red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait."

A dash cam video capturing the arrest and subsequent tasing of a St. Louis man reveals how easily law enforcement can manipulate camera footage to defend its actions.

According to the police report cited by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cortez Bufford engaged in “aggressive” behavior and resisted arrest when cops pulled him over on the night of April 10, 2014. Video of the traffic stop reveals a more nuanced version of what really happened.

Officers Nathaniel Burkemper and Michael Binz pulled Bufford’s silver Ford Taurus over because of an illegal U-turn and in connection with a 911 call over shots fired near the Lafayette Square area of St. Louis. It’s hard to hear exactly what the officers say to Bufford in the dash cam video, but Burkemper can be heard saying, “I’m telling you right now” and “Let’s go.”

According to the police report, Bufford refused to get out of the car as requested. A passenger in the car was handcuffed without incident.

Burkemper eventually pulls Bufford out of the car, and at least seven other officers get involved in the scene. One officer in the video is shown kicking Bufford when he is on the ground. Bufford was also tased twice while on the ground. It appears there is no clear justification for using such force. Officer Kelli Swinton approaches Burkemper’s patrol car at 10:16pm and yells, “Hold up. Hold up, y’all. Hold up. Hold up, everybody, hold up. We’re red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait.” The video ends eight second later.

The charges of resisting arrest and unlawful use of a weapon were dropped in August because the tape contradicted the police report, a lawyer for Bufford said. But a circuit attorney’s spokeswoman, Susan Ryan, disagreed, saying the case was dismissed because “the action of turning off the dash cam video diminished the evidentiary merits of the case,” according to the Post-Dispatch.

The video’s release, which St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s office asked be delayed last summer, has resulted in Bufford filing an excessive force claim against the St. Louis Police Department. According to his lawyers, Bufford “suffered abrasions to his fingers, face, back, head, ears and neck, and incurred medical bills of $6,439.32.”

The claim seeks unspecified damages from Burkemper, Jenkins and two unnamed police officers.

A lawyer from the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association claims that the video proves why the officers had to escalate their use of force against the suspect. Brian Millikan, a union lawyer for four of the officers who were involved in the arrest claim, also claims the video proves officers were justified in their actions.

But the central problem in all of this is that an officer asked if the dash cam should be running during the arrest, even though department rules clearly state it must be on during the entirety of any stop. The officer who made the request is reportedly being recommended for disciplinary action.

Some state officials want to limit public access to dash cams, citing privacy issues for the people engaged in encounters with police. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is calling for restrictions on public access because it will lead to “a new era of voyeurism and entertainment television at the expense of Missourians’ privacy.” His proposal would make dash cam videos closed records.

Though this video clearly shows police abuse, it seems like law enforcement and state government officials are trying to protect the cops from being prosecuted for their abusive behavior. Koster’s concern for privacy seems to have little to do with protecting civilians and more to do with upholding a blue wall of silence that will make cops unaccountable to the public. 

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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