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NYPD Hopes to Use Video To Combat 'Implicit Bias' Against Officers

Hammer Attack Video
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The first photo to emerge of last week's shooting by an NYPD officer of a man accused of serial "hammer attacks" echoed recent photos and videos from police-involved shootings across the country: A black man lay prone on the ground, as a uniformed — and white — officer stood over him, gun aimed at the prostrate man.

So the reports that came in from eyewitnesses were, perhaps, not surprising.

A man standing at a nearby Dunkin Donuts reportedly told the New York Times he had watched the NYPD officer shoot a man who was running away.

A woman riding by on a bicycle then apparently called the Times newsroom to report that she had just witnessed police shoot a man who was in handcuffs.

"I am sorry," she reportedly told the Times. "Maybe I am crazy, but that is what I saw."

But it wasn't.

The NYPD quickly released surveillance video that showed that neither of the eyewitness reports were accurate. The video makes clear that the man, David Baril, had attacked another officer with the claw side of a hammer, before being shot multiple times by the officer's partner.

"Fortunately, this is one of the benefits of video," Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said on a radio show Sunday morning. "Oftentimes, it gives us clarity to push back on those that seek to tell a story that's not factual."

Bratton said the woman who called the New York Times "quite obviously has a bias against police officers."

When the Times informed the bicyclist last week that video of the incident contradicted what she thought she saw, she apparently said, "I feel totally embarrassed."

She concluded that she may have seen the man before the attack, seemingly passive, then looked away and only looked back in time to see him on the ground in handcuffs, after gunshots went off.

New York City-based lawyer Mark Bederow said "implicit bias," as Bratton put it, is something legal professionals grapple with when assessing witness testimony.

"Sometimes people may turn or hear or see something that's already in progress, and it's like starting to watch the play in Act Three, and they didn't see Act One or Act Two," he said. "Subconsciously, they fill in blanks.

"And sometimes you may just also fit in some biases. The woman in the article appeared to fit in some biases that she may have gotten from current events."

"Which doesn't make her a bad person," Bederow added. "It can show you the impact of media and things you can hear outside of the [court] proceeding."

In the wake of a series of high-profile, racially charged police-involved deaths of civilians — including one captured on video in South Carolina just a few weeks ago, in which the victim was shot multiple times as he tried to run away, then was handcuffed as he lay on the ground bleeding — the inaccurate eyewitness reports of the hammer attack fit snugly into a narrative that has been at the forefront of our national consciousness for months.

But, legal professionals say, that's a problem — and a clear example of why juries are often ordered to avoid reading or watching reports about a trial they are involved in.

"I think media can impact memory," said Joseph Indusi, an attorney with the New York City-based firm London Indusi LLC. "With all the media attention around some of the truly horrible things we've seen police do, when people see a particular police-involved incident, their memory may be playing back images from recent incidents around the country.

"Sometimes those memories, those images that are burned into someone's head, are what they're remembering after the fact."

The NYPD's insistence on relying on video, not eyewitnesses, to get to the bottom of what really took place during the hammer attack shooting was unique in Bederow's experience because it put the police in a position usually occupied by defense attorneys.

In trials, lawyers for the accused are often responsible for poking holes in witness accounts put forward by police and prosecutors, Bederow explained.

"It's interesting because this is the kind of thing when you have citizens informants who claim, 'This is what I saw,' and what are police supposed to do?" he said.

Which is why, Bederow said, it seems obvious that police forces around the country should want to outfit their officers with body cameras.

The proposal has been controversial in many places. But after a bystander's cell phone video captured a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer shooting an unarmed 50-year-old man in the back as he fled, city officials rushed to purchase an additional 150 cameras, on top of 101 cameras they had already ordered with state funds.

Here in New York City, Bratton launched body camera pilot programs in six precincts back in December.

"Maybe I’m oversimplifying, [but] it’s hard for me to fathom as a general principle why anyone would be against cameras for the simple reason that it would establish factually in any particular situation [what happened]," Bederow said. "As a matter of getting to the truth of what happens in a police-civilian encounter, that seems to be the best way to make it happen for sure."

On the radio on Sunday, Bratton agreed — warily.

"One of the problems with body cameras is this idea that you can't believe police officers unless there's video," Bratton said. "We're creating a scenario increasingly where juries... If there's not a video, people are going to insist, 'Well, how can you believe the officers?'"

"I'm worried that there's a growing fundamental mistrust [of police]," Bratton said.