Video Analyst in Beating Death Says Emotions Threaten Justice

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The Parting Shot column published in the June issue of Government Video focused on the role of surveillance video as evidence against Fullerton, Calif., police officers involved in the 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, mentally ill, homeless man.

The article—“Video in Beating Death Plays Powerful Role”— described the video, which is available on YouTube and which clearly shows Thomas complying with Officer Manuel Ramos’ orders to sit. Nonetheless, Ramos, who is now charged with second-degree murder in the case, can be seen showing Thomas his fists and—no mistake here—threatens to beat Thomas with them.

Thomas reacts by attempting to leave, but Cpl. Jay Cicinelli—charged with manslaughter in the death—hits Thomas with a truncheon. Thomas was so severely beaten that he died five days later. Our general conclusion in the June column was the video is a powerful piece of evidence in this case.

David Notowitz, a video forensic analyst working for the police officers’ defense, contacted us to dispute our article. Notowitz is the founder of the National Center for Audio and Video Forensics, a for-hire forensic audio and video lab in.

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The surveillance video shows Fullerton, Calif. Police Officer Manuel Ramos put on a pair of latex gloves, and move close to Kelly Thomas. The officer then says, “See my fists, they are getting ready to …. you up.” In a phone conversation, I asked Notowitz to identify which part of our article or conclusion was incorrect. “I don’t want to go into the details right now, but I would be happy to discuss it with you,” Notowitz replied. “We can go over it point by point if you like, but I was hoping you would be open to another perspective on it.”

GV invited him to write out his perspectives and you can read his commentary at governmentvideo.com, keyword Notowitz.

Headlined “Video Surveillance: Justice Threatened by Emotional Reactions,” he states: “As surveillance video becomes more prevalent throughout our society, video and audio evidence is also becoming more significant in court cases.” He goes on to blame “the media” for getting “caught up in promoting scenes with emotions—emotional moments make great news and great ratings. They milk it.”

He continues, “People get caught up in the emotion of what they see, and react instantly. They forget to look more deeply. They forget there may be another side to the situation."

Of the Thomas matter—now The People v Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli—he says the case makes his point. “It’s a case filled with high emotions; as you watch the footage you feel for the man who died, Kelly Thomas, and his family.”

Notowitz was not clear about which part of our earlier column he disputes, but he asks a number of questions about what occurred. We feel the answers to at least some of these are obvious on the video:

- Does Thomas comply with officers’ order? (Yes.)
- Did officers treat him fairly? (Yes. Up until Ramos threatens Thomas.)
- Does Thomas mock the officers and hide his identity? (Yes.)
- Is Thomas a threat to the officers? (Not likely.)
- Did Thomas resist arrest? (The video makes it clear the officers were more interested in beating Thomas than taking him into custody.)

Government Video
is an ardent advocate for government professionals, including law enforcement. Most police officers are well trained to refrain from violent actions that go beyond what’s necessary to “protect and serve,” the kind of actions evident on this video.

Notowitz is correct that we (in the media and on jury panels) must be cautious about basing conclusions on our initial emotional reactions in such cases. Reporters and jury members need to ask what else might have been going on that’s not immediately visible.

But we also must not pretend that we’re not seeing what we’re seeing. This case is a powerful reminder of the role that video can play—and play well—in bringing justice to bear. Our reaction to such a video is emotional for a good reason.

I encourage you to read Notowitz’s commentary at governmentvideo.com, keyword Notowitz, and to post your reactions there or email me at jjsmith@nbmedia.com to continue the conversation.

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