Over five hundred people have died at the hands of law enforcement in 2016, 33 of them right here in Florida. Many promises have been made about the implementation of body cameras to stem this tide, but accountability and transparency have not followed massive investment of taxpayer dollars.
Earlier this year, a study for the Department of Justice found that "most of the claims made about the [body camera] technology are untested." Civil rights leaders stood up to say that “[w]ithout carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability.”
We’ve long had questions about who controls the storage of the footage, the public’s right to access it, when an officer could decide to turn the cameras on and off, the further surveillance of black and brown communities that are already overpoliced, and who is profiting off of these devices. Many of our questions were met with an unwavering deference to and investment in the same agencies these devices were supposed to be holding accountable — the police.
In Hallandale Beach, we don’t have to wait for the results of any further studies or make predictions about the future. We’ve seen what implementation of these devices looks like and who it is truly meant to serve, and it is not the people.
On May 22, 2016, in the early hours of the morning, Hallandale Beach Police Department (HBPD) took yet another life, this time that of 27-year-old Michael Eugene Wilson, Jr.
Within 36 hours of the shooting, Chief Flournoy of the HBPD released a single angle of body camera footage of the encounter, saying he was “1,000 percent” certain that his officer was justified. Well, Chief Flournoy, making a unilateral assessment after little to no investigation will not stop the public outcry.
Three officers who arrived at the scene were outfitted with body cameras, but only one camera was on. Contrary to what policy demands, the officer who fired the fatal shots failed to activate his camera prior to arriving at the scene. Many organizations and activists predicted this issue even before implementation. But where is the accountability now? Hallandale and Broward body camera policies do not have clear consequences for officers who fail to comply. They do, however, let officers review the footage before making their own statements.
Michael’s death is on the hands not just of HBPD but also on those of the Hallandale Beach City Commission. Their actions have shown they do not believe in transparency or accountability. Instead, they believe in carefully curated statements, images, and sound bites to absolve themselves of any responsibility. And they believe that every police-involved shooting, every SWAT raid, and every use of force, no matter the circumstances, is 1,000 percent justified.
Michael Eugene Wilson, Jr., was a son, a brother, an uncle, and a devoted friend. The cameras didn’t capture that. According to his mother, he made mistakes early in his life but was making strides to improve his circumstances. Three weeks prior to his death, he started a new job, secured an interview for a second job, and was working toward getting his own apartment. The cameras didn’t capture that, either.
The cameras didn’t capture the utter disregard for Wilson's humanity his family suffered at the hands of the Hallandale Police Department following the killing. Michael’s mother, Paula Nobles, was contacted by phone to identify his body by his tattoos. She had to drive down to the police department on her own initiative to find out whether her son was still alive. Since then, she has received no further contact, no formal condolences, and no answers about what happened early that morning that led to her child’s tragic death. Ms. Nobles has not been able to collect Wilson's personal items and has even more questions than she had just a week ago, the most poignant of which is, “How did it go from [allegedly] breaking into a car to death?”
Hallandale Beach is currently facing two wrongful death lawsuits for the police-involved killings of Eduardo Prieto, Jr., and Howard Bowe, Jr. In 2014, the city paid $150,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit for the shooting of Gregory Ehlers, Jr. All four men were unarmed at the time they were killed by HBPD. Bowe’s lawsuit alleges that “it is a well-settled policy, practice, and custom for HBPD Officers... to take extreme and reckless actions against the people they encounter... all in the name of self-defense, resulting in ‘trigger-happy’ HBPD Officers killing and/or seriously injuring people.” Furthermore, the suit claims that the City and the HBPD have repeatedly failed to direct, or sought to limit, proper investigation into the “extreme and wanton acts” of HBPD officers, “with few or no serious questions ever raised as to an Officer’s decision to use excessive force and/or deadly force.”
No one had to die on May 22, 2016. Had the officer who discharged his weapon heeded the recommendations of the police department’s own excessive use of force report, Michael Eugene Wilson, Jr., would likely still be alive today. Had the City responsibly investigated repeated allegations of discriminatory policing and excessive force, Michael Eugene Wilson, Jr., would likely still be alive today. We demand true accountability in Hallandale. It is not enough to categorically deny wrongdoing in all instances and instantly declare every action is “1,000 percent justified.” It becomes harder and harder to believe every time.
Now, Wilson's mother is demanding justice. According to Florida Statute 119.406.136, as his next of kin, she is entitled to the full, unedited footage of what happened to her son that fateful night, as well as any other accompanying reports. Requests to the Hallandale Police Department for that information have been denied. Command staff have stated that the footage will be released once the investigation is complete. So, how is it that the chief found it appropriate to release the footage to the public without consulting the family?
As his father, Michael Wilson, Sr., lamented, “I know he wasn’t an angel, but was it necessary to kill my son?” Michael’s sister also echoed his sentiments, “No matter what life he led, what matters is what happened in that moment, and was it necessary?”
Here is the body-camera footage in question: