The first officer to arrive did not check for a pulse or provide assistance to Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, as he lay on the road’s yellow stripe, body-camera footage filed in court and obtained this week by media outlets shows. By the time a second officer tended to him, Arbery had stopped moving. No one was arrested.
“Why would he be in cuffs?” an officer says of Travis McMichael, who shot Arbery.
For many, the officers’ behavior seems like a stark testament to a larger problem that law enforcement has been reckoning with nationwide this year: inequality in how police treat people, especially Black and White Americans. In the body-camera footage, critics see a victim treated as a suspect and culprits quickly treated as victims who acted in self-defense, protecting their neighborhood and their own lives.
“You have a Black victim who is perceived as being involved in some sort of criminal activity,” said Chris Burbank, a former police chief and a vice president at the Center for Policing Equity. “You see that play out in what I view as apathy, almost, from the police in their approach to it.”
The new footage has underscored long-standing concerns with how authorities handled Arbery’s fatal shooting in February, along with a litany of killings by police this year that sparked outrage and accusations of racism. Prosecutors say Arbery was jogging in a residential neighborhood of coastal Georgia when three men, now charged with murder, chased and fatally shot him. The men — a former local police detective, Gregory McMichael; his son, Travis McMichael; and a third man who filmed the encounter, William R. “Roddie” Bryan — said they pursued Arbery in their trucks, suspecting he was behind neighborhood break-ins.
Lee Merritt, a lawyer for Arbery’s family, contrasted the officers’ behavior in the February incident with how Arbery was arrested in 2017 for shoplifting, when police handcuffed him on the ground, in a moment also captured on video.
“That’s the Black experience,” Merritt said. Of Bryan and the McMichaels, he said, “there has not been a Black murder suspect in history who got the deference that these men received.”
The Glynn County Police Department declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation and saying that the first officers to arrive on the scene were unavailable to speak.
Policing experts said it is impossible to know what was going through officers’ minds as they responded to the scene, and a lawyer for Travis McMichael defended the police officers’ treatment of his client that day.
“It may be that the police saw they were not armed, they were not behaving at that moment in an aggressive or furtive manner, and perhaps made the judgment call that they were not dangerous,” said lawyer Jason Sheffield. “But it’s hard to speak for what was going through that particular officer’s mind.”
A now-recused prosecutor defended the actions of the McMichaels as part of a lawful “citizen’s arrest,” arguing that defendant Travis McMichael had grounds to use deadly force in self-defense.
At the scene of the shooting, two officers appeared to recognize the McMichaels. Gregory McMichael had recently retired from working as an investigator with the local district attorney, Jackie Johnson, who initially had jurisdiction over the case before recusing herself.
Cellphone footage — provided to law enforcement the day of Arbery’s death, according to state officials — shows Arbery jogging past the McMichaels and their truck, then struggling with Travis before being shot.
As the first police officer arrives minutes later, video shows Arbery covered in blood, his head raised up from the asphalt. A leg can be seen moving, and his head turns. As the officer approaches, the recording captures what appears to be Arbery’s labored breathing.
Gregory and Travis McMichael walked away from Arbery briefly. Then Gregory returned to talk to the officer.
“He had no choice,” he says, pointing to his son and trying to comfort him.
A second police officer who arrived a few minutes later donned gloves and checked on Arbery, who by then appeared to be dead.
“Got a pulse or anything?” that officer asked as he approached Arbery.
“No. He’s about to be 10-7. Man.”
Former members of law enforcement and experts on police training said the first officer should have given Arbery medical attention immediately after making sure the scene was safe — for example, by separating people from their guns. The first officer asked the McMichaels about weapons, appearing to take them at their word.
“All right guys, everybody’s got their weapons up, correct?” he says. “Okay.”
The officer relays details of the situation to his colleagues, asking for caution tape. But he does not rush to Arbery.
Police may have only rudimentary medical training, said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and law professor at the University of South Carolina. But even putting a hand over a bullet hole to stanch bleeding can be hugely important, he said, and preservation of life — such as monitoring a person’s breathing — should come before setting up the perimeter with crime scene tape.
Officers cannot “just call the paramedic and stand there and watch until the ambulance arrives,” he said, adding later, “We’re talking about situations where seconds can save lives.”
Merritt criticized the “failure to check for a pulse” and the immediate credence given to the McMichaels. It’s a pattern throughout the video, he said. One officer says the incident seems to be one of “self-defense,” and police display little skepticism. Even Bryan, the third man who was later arrested, wonders aloud about their decision to pursue Arbery, Merritt noted.
“Should we have been chasing him?” Bryan said at one point. “I don’t know.”
Ben Crump, another attorney representing Arbery’s family, said in a statement that the newly released footage “confirms what we had long suspected” about Bryan, who has said he was only a witness to the shooting.
“The footage clearly documents that Bryan used his truck to block Ahmaud from escaping the McMichaels,” Crump said.
"We are confident that this will bring us one step closer to justice for the Arbery family."
At a news conference in the spring, Bryan’s attorney said his client “has committed no crime” and bears no responsibility in Arbery’s death. He would not answer reporters’ questions about Bryan’s alleged attempts to block Arbery.
Bryan detailed his role in the chase to police in February, however. In the body-camera footage, Bryan said he was concerned about break-ins and wanted to help apprehend Arbery, trying to block him with his car. He told police he was on the porch when Arbery ran by, the McMichaels in pursuit.
“I hollered at them and said, ‘Y’all got him?’ ” Bryan said. “And he just kept running.”
“I pulled out of my driveway, was going to try to block him,” he said. “But he was going all around. I made a few moves at him, you know. And he didn’t stop.”
His lawyer, Kevin Gough, said in the spring that a polygraph test confirmed Bryan “did not have any conversation with either Gregory or Travis McMichael prior to the shooting.” Gough noted on Wednesday that a conversation “requires two or more participants.”
And a lawyer for Gregory McMichael strongly denied that race played a role in the tragedy.
“This is not a case of white racist vigilantes who, upon seeing a Black man innocently jogging down the street in their mostly white neighborhood, decide to arm themselves, jump in a pickup truck, chase, trap, and then execute him because he’s Black,” attorney Frank Hogue wrote in an email. He said the body-camera footage boosts the defendants’ trustworthiness by allowing “us all to witness [them] in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event.”
Others see a case that seems impossible to separate from race, given a long history of bias in policing and research on the way race and class affect people’s perceptions.
“The bottom line is this — this video highlights who’s oftentimes viewed as a victim versus who is viewed as perpetrator,” said Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies race and policing. “It was very clear arriving on the scene that the officers viewed the [defendants] as the victim and Ahmaud as the potential perpetrator.”
“Say we flipped the race of the people involved,” he said. “That level of trust would not have probably been given if the roles were reversed.”
Knowles reported from San Jose.