The two disturbing videos below depict the fatal police shooting of James Bushey, 47, of Elkhart, Tex. The videos are taken from the body cameras of two officers with the Palestine, Tex., police department.
Bushey was suspected of stealing some alcohol from a local Wal-Mart. The videos depict Sgt. Gabriel Green calmly and non-aggressively confronting Bushey in the bathroom of an Applebee’s restaurant. He and Officer Kaylynn Griffin then escort him outside the restaurant. Bushey then pulls a BB gun pistol from his pocket and points it at the officers. They then open fire and kill him. By all appearances, this shooting looks both justified and unavoidable. Judging by the local newspaper account of the shooting, Bushey was likely attempting suicide-by-cop. It’s really the only explanation for why he’d knowingly pull a non-lethal gun on two police officers armed with guns that shoot actual bullets.
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But these two videos also show why police groups and their supporters ought to embrace the use of body cameras. The most obvious reason is that these particular videos completely vindicate Green and Griffin. Not only do the videos show the shooting to be justified, but they also show that the two officers handled the entire situation professionally and without unnecessary escalation. (Note the moment where Sgt. Green spots a knife on a table and subtly slides it out of Bushey’s reach.) Even if you’re a cynic and believe the officers were only acting that way because they were on camera, that’s all the more reason to embrace the use of body cameras. They can encourage best practices.
Many critics (including me) believe courts and prosecutors are too deferential to police narratives, especially when they’re contradicted by other witnesses. But outside the criminal justice system, any time a cop shoots someone there will always be some suspicion about whether the shooting was justified and necessary. For example, given how inexplicable Bushey’s actions were, it isn’t hard to imagine a critic questioning whether the BB gun was planted. (It wouldn’t be unprecedented.) This is a good example in which an independent video narrative can remove all doubt.
On a broader level, videos like these can also show doubters that there are police shootings that are not only legally justified, but also couldn’t have been prevented. These two videos put you right in the officers’ shoes. It’s hard not to feel the life-and-death rush of adrenaline that undoubtedly washed over Green and Griffin the moment they saw Bushey’s gun.
That perspective is also important. In an interview with The Watch last month, former Baltimore cop Michael Wood lamented the lack of empathy among police for the people they served, particularly in urban areas. But police groups and their advocates say empathy should go both ways. They often complain that critics have no idea what it’s like to have to decide in a split second whether a suspect poses a threat to your life. Videos like these certainly help illustrate the point.
So used correctly, body cameras can provide both transparency and some empathy for good cops caught in bad situations. On paper, the shooting of James Bushey shares some important components with the shooting of Tamir Rice. In both cases, police mistook a non-lethal or toy gun for a real one. In both cases, the police claimed the suspect pointed the gun at them, giving them no choice but to use lethal force. Without video, we’re left only with similar-sounding police narratives. With video, we see just how dramatically different the two cases really are.
Again, police body cameras aren’t a panacea. And they need to be implemented with the right policies to govern their use. But they’re a step toward transparency that both cops and their critics ought to be able to support.