Aug. 29, 2007 -- From shootouts caught by dashboard cameras to high-speed chases, police confrontations caught on video are a huge spectator sport on the Web. Originally, these videos were meant to help prosecute criminals, but now that the public can view them with a single click, police are beginning to realize that anyone can become judge and jury in just an instant — even the police themselves.
There are more than 100,000 police-related videos posted on the Web. Many of them are clear-cut cases where the criminal is in the wrong, but others show disturbing behavior on the part of the police that has led to indictments and resignations.
Some videos have also ignited national controversy, like one appalling scene in which a young girl is forcibly pushed down and held by five deputies as she pleads for her life while being strapped into a restraint chair. On a police surveillance tape, Lisa Tanner screams, "I don't know what you're doing!" The officers yell back, "Stop resisting!" For nearly six minutes, she struggles under their grip and protests until finally, it appears, the chokehold on her neck causes her to pass out.
When this tape became public, it sparked cries of outrage because the petite victim, in her pigtails and jeans, could have been anyone's daughter. But this wasn't just anyone's daughter — her father was the state attorney — and his efforts to get justice for his daughter helped launch several investigations. But these investigations revealed a potentially much different picture than what seemed obvious on the tape.
And that, police say, is the danger when only a portion of police action goes viral on the Web. Police actions that seem so obvious to the eye can be taken out of context and they often are, say police. They say the public may not understand the circumstances leading up to an incident and they may not understand what the law says — they say we've become judge and jury without having all the facts.
So here's a little test. Can you tell in which of these cases the police were found to be in the wrong and in which their actions were found to be justified?
In Washington, D.C. a homeless man carrying a knife was being held at bay by four officers with guns. As the man stood with his hands down, looking away, a fifth officer arrived on the scene and immediately shot and killed him.
In Toledo, Ohio, a woman was pulled over for speeding. The cop wrote her a ticket, but she refused to accept it. She threw the ticket out of the window. So the cop pulled her out of her truck and pulled her down to the ground.
And in Cincinnati, police were called to a fast food restaurant because a man was allegedly causing a disturbance. After receiving multiple blows from police batons, the man died at the scene.
Believe it or not … in only one of these cases were police found to be in the wrong and surprisingly, it's the case of the woman who threw her ticket out of the window.
Lawrence Sherman who heads up the center for criminology at the University of Pennsylvania explained.
"Police officers are not empowered to make arrests for contempt of cop. The police officer has assaulted an innocent citizen," he said.
But if this is an assault, how is the one in which the man died after the beating not? And how was the shooting in Washington, D.C., not considered "in cold blood"?
Sherman's students often have the same reaction at first. "By and large, they're horrified." He said that sometimes in his classroom of 150 people, 75 of them say the officer who shot the man should have been indicted on a murder charge.
But the officer wasn't indicted, even though the man he shot doesn't appear on the tape to be an immediate threat.
"I certainly wouldn't have shot him," Sherman said. "I think that what the police officer who shot him did was wrong, morally wrong. But legally justified."
The video didn't show the circumstances leading up to the shooting. The man had been standing in front of the White House and several times he'd been ordered to drop his knife and didn't.
Sherman said the officers clearly saw the man as a threat.
"You can tell the way they're walking around him very carefully that they are treating him as a clear and present danger."
Sherman said there's always the possibility that his behavior could suddenly turn violent, as it has in many cases where officers have been suddenly injured or killed. So the fact that the knife-wielding man at the White House was not violent at that moment was not what mattered.
"In a split second, he could be putting a knife in an officer's stomach," Sherman said.
And a court ruled the officer was legally empowered to kill the man.
Baton Beating Deemed Legal
What about this case of 41-year-old Nathaniel Jones, who was acting disorderly in the parking lot of a restaurant and who died shortly after officers subdued him with batons?
Again, Sherman said, it's a question of knowing the whole picture. When the first officer arrived, Jones lunged at him and then punched him in the side of his head. That's assaulting an officer … a felony.
Jones was 350 pounds, twice the size of the officers. And during the scuffle, Jones had tried to grab an officer's baton and his gun.
Police ordered him to back up, show his hands or put his hands behind his back 23 times, but he didn't comply. Sherman said Jones was physically resisting their efforts to handcuff him and that made him a continued threat.
"If he is posing a continued threat to them, then the number of times that they hit him in order to restrain him does not bear on the question of whether the hitting isn't lawful," Sherman said and that's one of the main reasons why there's so much misunderstanding.
To the average citizen it looks like abuse, but by law the moment a suspect resists, doesn't comply with orders or poses a threat, police can legally set into motion a physical confrontation.
Police benevolent association spokesman Jim Spearling said the public wants police to protect them, but they don't want to see what it takes to do that.
"It's an unpleasant, and often dangerous, sometimes fatal, job. And it's not pretty to look at — it's never pretty to look at," Spearling said. "The truth is, it's a dangerous and difficult game. And the definition of success? Find trouble and get the biggest, baddest trouble you can get into — and get into it."
Sherman said, "I think we have to understand that the police would prefer to get out of the situation without killing somebody. When a police officer kills somebody, it ruins their life. They tend to resign early from their police service. They have stress problems. They have illness related to stress. It's a terrible thing."
In the case of Jones, an autopsy later revealed that he had PCP and cocaine in his body and that he had an enlarged heart that likely contributed to his death.
And what about the case of young Lisa Tanner, all of 114 pounds, who had four officers strap her into a restraint chair? We'll tell you the rest of the story on "iCaught" Tuesday night and let you be the judge.