Few aspects of policing attract more scrutiny than an officer's use of force. And as people around the nation continue to voice concerns about the sometimes contentious relationship between citizens and law enforcement, it's become clear that police and the policed often have drastically different interpretations of the same incidents.
In some cases, this disagreement may stem from an honest difference of opinion. Police violence -- and violence in general -- typically looks repulsive, whether you're watching it unfold in person or on video. It regularly leads to questions about whether a situation truly called for the level of force used, and whether anyone's civil rights were violated in the process. But when the question of what's "excessive" is left to an internal review process that tends to give officers a great deal of leeway, what might appear improper to the average citizen is often found to be justified in the eyes of the law.
[This story includes videos that contain explicit language and graphic depictions of violence. They may be upsetting for some readers.]
A number of high-profile cases over the past few years suggest that something even more disturbing can happen when police are given the responsibility of self-reporting violence. The instances below offer clear evidence of cops -- and in some cases, their superiors -- attempting to sanitize, mischaracterize or simply lie about the use of force. They raise disquieting questions about what might have happened if videos of the incidents had never surfaced -- and how many similar incidents never become known to the public.
"The shackles accidentally hit one of her arms."
New Orleans police Officer Terrance Saulny was fired earlier this year after an internal investigation concluded that he had used "unauthorized force" in the 2014 incident captured in the above surveillance video. Saulny can be seen repeatedly striking a 16-year-old girl who was in a holding cell following an arrest.
Saulny reportedly informed his supervisor immediately following the encounter, which left the girl with minor injuries, according to a police report. In a later interview with investigators, Saulny explained his decision to use force.
"[Saulny] stated he felt threatened, so he just pushed her to the left," investigators wrote, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "He attempted to grab her arm and tried to put shackles on her and when she resisted by pulling away he tried grabbing her again and her arms went up and the shackles accidentally hit one of her arms."
Saulny's attorney has said his client plans to appeal his termination.
"The officer 'escorted [the suspect] to the floor.'"
The November 2013 incident seen above is now at the center of a federal civil rights lawsuit being filed by the victim, Alexis Acker, against the Colorado Springs Police Department.
In the surveillance video, first obtained by the Colorado Springs Independent, a handcuffed Acker, then 19 and at a hospital for medical clearance following an arrest, is seen kicking Officer Tyler Walker, who responds by slamming her to the ground. In the words of an officer who filed a police report on the incident, Walker "escorted Ms. Acker to the floor." According to another officer's report, he "rolled her out of the chair to the floor."
In his own report, Walker wrote that he "forcefully threw Ms. Acker ... face down on the ground." He claimed that Acker was intoxicated and combative prior to arriving at the hospital, and said the kick was valid cause for him to respond with force. The lawsuit claims Acker sustained significant injuries from the takedown, including facial trauma, a concussion and problems with memory and cognitive function, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Walker is still employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
"A physical altercation ensued."
In July 2014, a passing motorist filmed as California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Andrew rained blows down on Marlene Pinnock, a 51-year-old grandmother who was walking along a freeway. A CHP incident summary of the incident claimed that Pinnock became "physically combative" when Andrew attempted to pull her away from traffic, at which time "a physical altercation ensued."
In September, Andrew agreed to resign from the CHP. Pinnock accepted $1.5 million from the agency to settle the civil rights lawsuit she'd filed.
Officer "placed his arm around" a teen and tried to "console" him.
In the video above, first obtained by WFAA, Dallas police Officer Terigi Rossi is seen in October 2014 talking to a 14-year-old boy who, seemingly unbeknownst to Rossi, is recording the encounter on a cell phone. Rossi and his partner were responding to a 911 hang-up, which led to one woman, reportedly the boy's stepmother, being briefly detained. Rossi can be heard trying to get information from the boy, whom he apparently considers uncooperative.
At one point, Rossi leans in and grabs the teen, before verbally assaulting him.
"If I were you, son, I'd shut the fuck up, cause I'll break your fucking neck. You understand me?" Rossi says, later adding: "You're just like your mother. You're a piece of fucking shit."
According to WFAA, Rossi's official police report claimed the boy had started to cry, and that Rossi had placed his arm around the boy to "console" him. The report didn't mention his threat to the teen. Rossi later faced an internal investigation and described his remarks as a "verbal technique that I've used to try to calm down people or suspects in my career with no intention of ever meaning the words I say." He also denied making false statements on his initial report.
Rossi is still employed by the Dallas Police Department.
Officer hit suspect "several times with a closed right fist."
In the video above, police in Inkster, Michigan, are seen beating 57-year-old Floyd Dent during a January traffic stop. Officer William Melendez, the cop seen pummeling Dent, later suggested in an official report that Dent looked like he was on drugs at the time and that he'd verbally threatened officers before the altercation. Melendez also claimed that he hit Dent "several times with a closed right fist" after Dent bit him on the arm. In this case, "several" means 16.
Melendez was fired in April from the Inkster and Highland Park police departments following an internal investigation of the incident. He is set to stand trial on felony charges of misconduct in office, assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder and a new count of assault by strangulation.
In May, Dent settled his suit with the city of Inkster for $1.4 million. He claims that the incident has left him with significant injuries and memory loss.
Officer "felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon."
When Officer Michael Slager shot and killed 50-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, in April, authorities initially described it as the kind of unfortunate yet unavoidable incident that sometimes happens in the course of police work.
According to a report published before the release of a highly circulated bystander video of the shooting, Slager's attorney said his client "felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon." An official police report claimed that Scott had gained control of Slager's Taser and that Slager had no choice but to use lethal force. The bystander video called these claims into question and left people wondering what would have happened if there hadn't been a witness to contest Slager's version of events.
Slager was fired from the North Charleston Police Department in April and is now in jail awaiting trial for murder charges.
"To protect the neighborhood... officers had to secure" the suspect.
In April, Martin Lee Hoogveldt, then 33, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the police department of West Jordan, Utah, alleging illegal entry and excessive force during a raid that took place more than two years earlier, during which the above video was captured.
In March 2013, officers responded to complaints of a Christmas tree burning in Hoogveldt's backyard. Neighbors claimed that Hoogveldt had previously threatened them with a knife, and police later explained that they showed up to Hoogveldt's property with their guns drawn and with a K-9 unit at the ready because they thought he might be armed and dangerous. Ian Adams and his dog, Pyro, were among the officers who entered Hoogveldt's house and ordered him to show his hands when they found him sitting on a couch. As seen on footage from Adams' body camera, Hoogveldt appeared to comply, but when he didn't stand up quickly enough, Adams commanded Pyro to attack Hoogveldt. Officers then used their stun guns on Hoogveldt.
When all was said and done, Hoogveldt had suffered bites to the face, neck, buttocks, leg and arm. The injuries cost him about $60,000 in plastic surgery.
In a release, authorities wrote that "to protect the neighborhood and before the fire department could come in, officers had to secure Mr. Hoogveldt."
Officer "guided [the suspect] to the ground."
Last year, on St. Patrick's Day, 28-year-old Megan Sheehan was returning home after a night of heavy drinking in San Francisco when a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer approached her because she appeared intoxicated. Initial video released shows a belligerent and uncooperative Sheehan in a confrontation with the officer. She was eventually taken to jail on suspicion of resisting arrest, battery on a police officer and public intoxication.
The video above shows Sheehan being processed at the jail. She can be heard saying "Don’t touch me like that" to an officer behind her, at which point BART Officer Nolan Pianta hurls her face-first into the ground. In the full video, blood begins to pool around Sheehan's face. She said she was knocked unconscious and spent the next two days at a hospital receiving treatment for four broken cheek bones, a split molar and a cracked front tooth.
In a police report on the incident, the officer wrote that the maneuver was a response to an attempt by Sheehan to punch him.
“To protect myself from her attack and to stop her attack on me. I used an arm bar takedown and guided her to the ground," Pianta wrote. "Upon guiding her to the ground, she landed on her face and appeared to go unconscious.”
Sheehan has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming the officers used excessive and unreasonable force.
Officer kicked suspect to "create some space" between them.
In the 2009 incident shown above, police Officer Edward Krawetz of Lincoln, Rhode Island, kicked 44-year-old Donna Levesque in the head during an arrest for disorderly conduct at a bar.
Krawetz's explanation of his attack on the handcuffed woman changed as the story progressed, though he maintained that he'd acted in self-defense all the way through the end of his trial in 2012, when he was found guilty of felony battery. At one point, Krawetz told an investigator that he'd "kicked [Levesque] in the left part of the body" to "unbalance her and create some space (between them)." He also reportedly claimed he acted to "prevent 'serious bodily injury' from happening to him."
Krawetz avoided jail time after his conviction, and was given a 10-year suspended sentence, as well as counseling and a suspension from the force.
Suspect was "taken down to the floor."
The video above shows a 2010 incident in which Alberto Dominguez was left bloodied on the floor of a Sweetwater, Florida, holding cell. Dominguez had been arrested on suspicion of criminal mischief for allegedly puncturing car tires.
When he arrived at the police station, reserve Officer Paul Abreu appears to manhandle Dominguez (he would later write that Dominguez was being uncooperative and threatening). Abreu is seen grabbing a handcuffed Dominguez around the neck and throwing him to the floor. His head hits a metal chair on the way down. Full video of the incident shows a bloody Dominguez being dragged around the floor of the station by officers, who later dump him in a cell.
In Abreu's sworn arrest affidavit, he claimed that that he watched the “suspect launch forward toward officer” and that as a result, Dominguez was “taken down to floor.” The incident left with Dominguez with a dozen stitches over his right eye and an added charge of "resisting arrest with violence."
In 2013, Dominguez filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force in the 2010 incident. The case is still pending.
Officer used "his marked police car to stop the dangerous situation."
In February, 36-year-old Mario Valencia was seen by police in Marana, Arizona, walking down the street with a rifle he had allegedly stolen from a Walmart. Officers would later report that Valencia had pointed the rifle at an officer and at himself during other encounters earlier that day.
In police dashcam video, an officer slowly following Valencia can be heard reporting that Valencia has just fired a single shot into the air. Moments later, Officer Michael Rapiejko's car comes zooming up and deliberately crashes into Valencia, sending him flying through the air like a rag doll. Valencia was later taken to a hospital in serious condition.
In an email to CNN explaining the series of events, a lieutenant described Rapiejko's actions as necessary.
"As Mario Valencia briskly walked towards Sargent Controls (local manufacturer), Officer Michael Rapiejko uses his marked police car to stop the dangerous situation Mario Valencia created," the lieutenant wrote.
An inquiry into the case later concluded that Rapiejko's use of force was justified and reasonable.
Suspect was "kicked by the horses."
In March 2010, 21-year-old University of Maryland student John McKenna was out celebrating his school's basketball win against rival Duke University when he was brutally beaten by Prince George's County police officers who'd been dispatched to control the crowd.
The sworn statement of charges, obtained by ABC News, shows that the officers claimed McKenna "struck those officers and their horses, causing minor injuries." The statement describes McKenna's injuries as minor, and suggests they were caused when he was "kicked by the horses." Officers also accused McKenna of inciting the crowd.
A full video appears to directly contradict all of these claims. After the video came out, the charges against McKenna, including the charge that he'd assaulted one of the officers, were dropped. In the end, however, one officer was acquitted, and another who was found guilty of assault was given a chance to have the verdict stricken from his record.
[No use of force reported]
In November 2009, Michael Bergeron Jr., then 19, was arrested on charges of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana and taken to a Seabrook, New Hampshire, police station for processing. Years later, Bergeron released surveillance footage of his treatment at the station. The video shows him being slammed into a cement wall by one officer, then pepper-sprayed by another. At least one of the three officers present appears to be smiling.
None of the official reports about the incident mention Bergeron being smashed into a wall. One officer reported that an officer "performed an arm bar," a type of hold, on Bergeron, while another suggested that Bergeron simply fell to the floor. Officers also wrote that Bergeron was combative and uncooperative throughout his arrest.
In July 2014, four officers were disciplined for the incident. Two were fired.
The Seabrook Police Department initially had access to the video of the incident, and released it to Bergeron as part of the legal proceedings following his arrest. But the department didn't pursue disciplinary action against any of the officers until after Bergeron made the video public.
Chaz Smith contributed to this post.