What happens when the police have no evidence to support an officer's story?
Ideally, a scrupulous, thorough investigation uncovers an approximation of the truth, and the consequences fall where they should.
That seems to be happening in a still-unraveling case in Baton Rouge, where a police officer back in August said he stopped a motorist and returned fire after the motorist shot at him.
Raheem Howard, 21, was promptly arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer.
That charge against him stood for weeks until a police investigation could find no evidence of Howard even having, much less firing, a gun.
The investigators had to piece together information from several sources. There were the statements that Yuseff Hamadeh used to incriminate Howard. There was terrible video footage from one of the cameras in Hamadeh’s squad car. There was audio from that same camera. There was some footage of the initial stop from a neighbor’s surveillance camera. And there was testimony from eyewitnesses.
In the end, the charges against Howard were dropped because there was absolutely no indication that Hamadeh was telling the truth.
Howard was released from jail earlier this week after nearly two months behind bars.
It seems to be a happy ending for a young man who was caught up in a terrifying web of unsubstantiated allegations.
But this isn’t Hamadeh’s first brush with violence. He killed Jordan Frazier in 2017 following a traffic stop in which the officer claimed thFrazier pointed a gun at him. Hmmm. Looking back on that now, there seems to be some reason for at least healthy skepticism about a discredited officer’s claims.
For the officer’s part, not a lot has changed. Shortly after shooting at Howard, Hamadeh was placed on administrative leave, but he has since returned to desk duty. All of this brings up some questions that one would hope are being asked within the Baton Rouge Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office:
Why were Hamadeh’s body camera and dashboard camera turned off at the time of the traffic stop, pursuit and shooting?
Were these valuable police tools similarly disabled when he killed Frazier?
Why is Hamadeh still on the police force even though the department admits that turning off those cameras is a violation of policy?
How many other arrests has Hamadeh made, and how many people are in jail because of his testimony against them?
Going back to my original question, let’s adjust it and look at this from the other side.
What happens when a police officer simply cannot prove the truth?
Let’s imagine that Howard actually was armed when Hamadeh shot at him. Let’s give the officer the benefit of the doubt and say Howard was somehow able to stash the gun somewhere before his arrest.
Alas, the police officer’s non-functioning cameras are unable to corroborate his version of events, so Howard cannot be successfully prosecuted, even though he managed to survive his interaction with Hamadeh.
If any of those things are true, Hamadeh, I’m sure, wishes he hadn’t turned off those cameras.
Speaking of cameras, nearly every local police agency uses them. They are useful tools. They help to provide information for investigators, and they can help law enforcement officers build cases against those who are charged with crimes.
They also, of course, can provide evidence that can be used against the rare rogue officer who has acted wrongly or inappropriately.
The whole ugly, potentially deadly story makes me wonder how local officers would react in a similar set of circumstances. Why would any of them not want body cameras? Surely, the chances are greater that they will be used to back up the officer’s story than that they will contradict it or, worse, provide incriminating evidence against the law enforcement professional. Right? And regardless of the ratio, don't we really just want to know what happened?
Unfortunately, the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office remains the outlier. While it does use dashboard cameras and Taser cameras, it still doesn’t employ body cameras – police tools that could be put to use (as they are nearly everywhere else) to exonerate officers, incriminate defendants and help inform superiors on the actions of deputies.
One of these days, perhaps…
-- Editorial Page Editor Michael Gorman can be reached at 448-7612 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mikegormanla.