On Saturday evening, Chicago police shot and killed Harith “Snoop” Augustus, a 37-year-old barber, prompting a night of protests in the city’s South Shore neighborhood. On Sunday, the police department released body-camera footage of the incident, “in the interest of transparency & to dispell [sic] inaccurate information,” according to CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson concurred. “The video speaks for itself.”
But in reality, the video doesn’t actually speak at all, because there is no sound, and the department is not being nearly as transparent or accurate as they’d like the public to believe.
The incident on Saturday began at approximately 5:30 p.m., when, according Guglielmi, officers reported seeing “a subject that they thought might have been armed around his waistband.” That account is contradicted by at least one neighborhood witness, Gloria Rainge, who told the Chicago Sun-Times that she was leaving a nearby Walgreens when she saw the officers approach Augustus and instruct him not to sell loose cigarettes. According to Rainge, when Augustus denied selling loosies, an argument ensued, he fled into the street and one of the officers fired as he ran away.
According to Guglielmi, a weapon was recovered at the scene along with several magazines of ammunition. Police officials initially said that Augustus did not have a gun license, but later retracted that statement and clarified that he had a valid Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card, but no concealed carry permit. Augustus wasn’t a documented gang member and had no recent arrest history.
The officer who fatally shot Augustus was apparently still in his probationary period, meaning he had only recently graduated from the Academy. All of the involved officers have been placed on administrative duties for 30 days.
So far, footage from just one of the officer’s body-cams has been released. The 45-second clip contains just 19 seconds of the actual incident, which has been edited to include a four-second freeze-frame meant to draw attention to the fact that the victim was carrying a concealed firearm. Without audio, it’s impossible to tell exactly when the first shots were fired.
CPD directed Rolling Stone’s questions about the incident to the Civilian Office for Police Accountability, which is handling the investigation, but so far, we have not heard back. However, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, CPD officials explained that the lack of audio is due to the fact that the “sound doesn’t turn on until 30 seconds after the recording button is activated.” Chicago’s local ABC affiliate also similarly reported, “The body cam video that was released does not have audio as there is a 30-second delay when the officer turns the device on.”
This is simply not true. The Chicago Police Department, like the vast majority of police departments across the country with the technology, uses Taser/AXON body-cameras. According to AXON’s own website, their body-cameras operate in two modes – BUFFERING mode and EVENT mode. Once the body-camera is turned on, it’s automatically in BUFFERING mode, and begins “capturing video but no audio,” that “will not record to permanent memory.”
When EVENT mode is activated, “both video and audio will be recorded from the camera.” In addition, “the buffered video (not audio) captured directly before the event, up to 30 seconds, will be saved and attached to the event in permanent memory.”
There is not a 30-second “delay” before the audio turns on after the body-camera begins recording. The 30 seconds of silent footage recorded in BUFFERING mode “is intended to capture the video of an incident just before your activation of EVENT mode,” it’s not a technological quirk that officers have no control over and can’t avoid. From the moment EVENT mode is activated, video and audio begin recording to permanent memory.
According to CPD’s body-worn camera policy, “the decision to electronically record a law-enforcement-related encounter is mandatory, not discretionary,” and officers are required to “activate the system to event mode at the beginning of an incident.” The reason why the footage released by CPD does not have audio is because the officer wearing that body-cam did not actually activate EVENT mode until after Augustus had already been shot.
As a result, it’s unclear why officers approached Augustus or what was said in the seconds leading up to the shooting. What we can see is that Augustus was already talking to one officer when three others, including the one wearing the body-camera, approach. A blonde female officer goes to grab Augustus’s arm and he jerks away, as if caught by surprise. Multiple officers then attempt to grab him – why remains unclear – but he evades their grasp and turns to run toward the street.
At this point, approximately 18 seconds into the clip, the footage zooms in, so the body-camera’s timestamp is cropped out. Two seconds later, when Augustus turns toward the officers and his shirt lifts up, the frame freezes for four seconds, so viewers can’t miss his exposed abdomen and what appears to be a firearm tucked into his waistband. In total, the zooming-and-freezing lasts for approximately six seconds, but once the footage zooms out again, the body-cam’s timestamp indicates that barely a second has passed in real-time. Because the clip has been edited, it can’t be discerned just how long Augustus’s waist was exposed, but it couldn’t haven’t been longer than 1/10th of a second, giving the officers much less time to ascertain whether he was armed.
Zooming and freeze-framing are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to editing body-camera footage. Police departments with Taser/AXON body-cams have contracts with Evidence.com, the company’s proprietary cloud storage and evidence management platform, which comes with editing capabilities that one former police records custodian described as “analogous to a Photoshop application.”
In 2015, Reynaldo Chavez, the former records custodian for the Albuquerque Police Department, filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming he was fired after he came forward with allegations that he knew of multiple Albuquerque police officers who were tampering with body camera and security camera footage by using Evidence.com. Chavez also signed a sworn affidavit and gave testimony under oath explaining how the platform was used to alter, delete, and/or hide footage from multiple fatal police shootings of civilians. He testified that the department was holding training sessions with officers so they could learn how to use Evidence.com to alter, delete and hide their own unwanted footage. Chavez described how the platform could be used to add, delete or alter objects across multiple frames of video, like turning a comb into a handgun.
In April 2017, Taser/AXON made a big move to corner the body-camera market, offering any police department that was interested a year of free body-cameras along with the necessary hardware, software, data storage, training and support. Of course, not every police department with Taser/AXON body-cameras is using Evidence.com’s editing capabilities for nefarious purposes. But there has been little transparency from Taser/AXON or police departments who contract with them about what the technology is capable of. But given the misinformation Chicago PD has put out about how the body-cameras record audio, it’s no wonder the public doesn’t feel it can trust that they are hearing the truth?