Remarkable body camera footage shows a Cleveland police officer acting heroically, trying to calm down a violent, suicidal man even after the man shot and wounded the cop.
The video, released Wednesday by the Cleveland Police Department, captures a dramatic March 11 raid. At the beginning of the minute-long video, officer David Muniz’s body camera shows him creeping up the stairs of Theodore Johnson’s apartment. Johnson, a 64-year-old with a long criminal record including a murder charge, had been threatening his wife and landlord with a gun.
As Muniz turns the corner, Johnson fires at him twice from the top of the stairway. One shot strikes Muniz in the chest.
Incredibly, Muniz not only survives the shooting but stays in the apartment and tries to save the man who just tried to kill him.
With a slug lodged in his bullet-proof vest, Muniz retreats to the downstairs kitchen. The edited camera footage then cuts to him negotiating with Johnson, both men with guns in their hands.
“Kill me,” Johnson demands, holding his gun at his side.
“No,” Muniz says. “We don’t want to kill you. Just drop the gun.”
“I wanna die,” Johnson says.
“No, you don’t want to die,” Muniz replies.
Muniz and other cops promise to help Johnson but he says “you can’t help me” and grows increasingly distraught. Again, he pleads for Muniz to shoot him.
“I know you shot me, but I’m not going to shoot you,” Muniz answers.
Despite the cop’s bravery, the standoff ends tragically. At the end of the video, Johnson appears to give up on begging for a bullet. Instead, he raises his gun towards the other officers. The video ends just before the officers — not including Muniz — fatally shoot Johnson.
The release of the harrowing footage lifted a heavy cloud that hung over Muniz and his fellow officers for the past seven months. The incident was the subject of an investigation, first from Cleveland Police, then the Cuyahoga Sheriff’s Department. During that time the cops were assigned to desk duties. The video’s release coincided with the closing of those investigations.
On Friday, the officers will finally receive an award for their actions — in no small part because of the body cam footage.
“These guys are absolutely genuine American heroes,” police union president Steve Loomistold told local TV station Fox 8.
But on the same day the crucial video evidence was released to the public, top law enforcement officers and politicians from across the country gathered in D.C. to express their concerns about increased scrutiny of cops, including body camera technology, and its role in a recent uptick in crime.
“We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a conference. “They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”
Emanuel’s comments, echoed by others at the conference, reflect a conundrum currently facing American police. In the 14 months since the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., many politicians and even some police chiefs have embraced body camera technology as a way of averting — or at least documenting — instances of police brutality.
Pressured by politicians and an angry public, departments from Los Angeles to New York City to D.C. have begun equipping cops with body cameras.
Already, body camera footage has proved crucial in illuminating a string of highly controversial incidents, including fatal police-involved shootings like the March 11 incident in Cleveland.
And police critics have praised body cams as providing increased accountability.
So, why are some cops still afraid of the technology?
Because, as Emanuel suggested, many cops believe that cameras — whether on their own chests or in the hands of bystanders — mean they will be held accountable, perhaps criminally, for simply doing their job.
As a result, cops are “pulling back” or going “fetal,” the Chicago mayor claimed Wednesday.
The evidence is largely anecdotal. A survey of NYPD officers conducted in the spring of 2014 — before Ferguson but just as body cameras were becoming a topic of debate — found that 85 percent of cops feared being proactive on the street because they are wary of civilian complaints.
That fear has only grown in the past 18 months as a string of cops have been arrested and criminally prosecuted due to acts caught on body cameras or bystander cellphones, according to Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who know teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Like Emanuel, O’Donnell claims cops are starting to police less aggressively in order to avoid becoming tonight’s top news story.
“I don’t want to say the sky is going to fall,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post earlier this summer. “But there is one sure way now to make sure that the cops aren’t going to be in a video where the stakes are high… and that is not to start a situation. Not to engage. Loud radio being played? Don’t engage.”
O’Donnell admitted that body cameras have now become a fait accompli for American police departments: the technology has existed for several years now and there is simply too much pressure not to adopt it.
But he warned that body cameras could make America a more dangerous place to be as cops withdraw from communities to protect themselves.
“There is going to be a lot less engagement because every cop in America now has to realize that any kind of interaction with anybody is monumentally significant and could end up in a bad way with them being disciplined or terminated or criminalized or demonized,” he said, citing the recent headline-grabbing murder cases against six Baltimore cops for the death of Freddie Gray and University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing for the fatal shooting of Sam DuBose.
“We haven’t had cops charged with murder for years and years and years,” O’Donnell said. “What are we at? Four or five in a row, with political statements from the prosecutors.”
O’Donnell didn’t defend the cops in either case, or deny that body cameras could catch bad apples in the act. And he said he believes the technology will be used to exonerate cops more often than punish them.
That’s an idea pushed by the companies making the body cams.
“Once [officers] go through that legal learning curve, they realize this is their legal body armor,” TASER spokesman Steve Tuttle told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It will catch officers making mistakes, sometimes egregious mistakes to full on errors. And that’s OK because it captures the truth, and the truth is the truth. You can correct action, or let these people go if they shouldn’t be on the force.”
But both body camera critics like O’Donnell and some supporters question the idea that the technology captures the “truth.”
O’Donnell said body cam footage lets the public play Monday-morning quarterback, as armchair critics who know nothing about policing or its dangers turn on the television and get incensed over a snippet of video, often taken out of context.
“What these cameras have done is suggest that the police know in real time the outcome” of a tense and traumatic situation, he told The Post. “That the police know in real time all the facts.
“Another thing the cameras have done is suggest that if the cameras show something different than what the cop says, that means the cop is lying,” he said, adding that hindsight is 20-20 but cops are often doing the best in stressful, unpredictable situations.
“The politics have shifted,” O’Donnell said, claiming that popular pressure on politicians and prosecutors has led to a “rush to judgment” against some cops seemingly caught on camera breaking the law. “We are seeing judgment first, facts later. The facts may never catch up to the judgment.
“We can’t have a country where CNN runs the show. We need to get some nuance and context. Apparently that’s not in great demand,” he said. “There is this visceral thing about showing these pictures, and there is a clear decision not to contextualize these events,” he added, comparing media coverage of the fatal shooting of unarmed Ferguson teenager Michael Brown to a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson.
Outrage over videos of officers allegedly acting badly often obscures other issues, O’Donnell argued. For instance, in the case of Freddie Gray, anger towards cops involved has distracted from the school, health and judicial systems that failed Gray, O’Donnell said.
“Policy conversations bore people,” he said. “Video conversations people find irresistible.”
O’Donnell worried that an obsession with body cameras will reward “reactive” police departments that “just show up after somebody is shot — the Justice Deptartment is not going to do anything to them” — but will turn more active, involved departments like NYPD into “potted plants.”
“I was a criminal prosecutor and a defense attorney,” he said. “How could I, in good conscience, tell any police person to go out, on video tape, and put his hands on anybody unless it’s a matter of life and death? How could you do it? The exposure they face if something bad happens is enormous.”
Surprisingly, Jocelyn Simonson agrees — at least in part.
She is an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School and has written extensively on body cameras and, more broadly, communities practicing “cop-watching.”
“He’s probably right that police are going to be less aggressive if they think there is going to be accountability down the line if something goes wrong,” she told The Post this summer. “But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”
Whereas O’Donnell sees a dangerous withdrawal of police in the age of body cameras, Simonson sees a chance at reducing police brutality through greater scrutiny.
“We were in a world where what a police officer said was largely assumed to be true,” she said. “We’re no longer in that place.”
“Police officers are getting scrutiny that an ordinary person would get,” she said. “If you walked up to someone and they were holding a gun and someone was dead on the ground, it doesn’t mean that they’ve committed a murder that needs to be prosecuted. But you’re going to ask some questions about it.
“I’m not sure that that means that every police officer’s supervisor or police commissioner is going to be doubting what they say,” she added. “What there is, is scrutiny. But Scrutiny after violence. And scrutiny after violence I believe is an appropriate reaction, especially when that violence is coming from a government official.”
Like O’Donnell, Simonson said body cameras are no panacea.
“There can be something problematic in hanging police accountability entirely on police body cameras,” she said, listing several drawbacks. “The videos are taken from the point of view of police. The videos are in the possession of the state. And there is no guarantee that there is going to be public access to those videos, especially if the political climate does shift” away from its current suspicion of police shootings.
That climate has already begun to shift, she said, pointing out how the slaying of two NYPD officers last December changed the debate over police brutality — at least temporarily.
Even in Cleveland, where David Muniz will receive an award on Friday, his heroics didn’t occur in a vacuum. Cleveland Police only adopted body cameras after the fatal Nov. 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park.
Exposing heroism. Depicting police brutality.
Body cameras cut both ways.