Even With Video, Experts Disagree On The Shooting Of Anthony McClain
How can you tell if a police officer was justified in fatally shooting someone?
Answering that question can be extremely hard, even when there's video of the entire incident.
Take the case of Anthony McClain, a 32-year-old Black man shot and killed Aug. 15 by a Pasadena police officer as he ran away from a traffic stop.
The shooting touched off protests in Pasadena -- it came amid a summer of demonstrations against police brutality sparked by the videotaped killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
In McClain's case, it wasn't a bystander's cell phone video that showed what happened. The Pasadena Police Department released dashboard and body-cam video of the encounter.
We asked three use-of-force experts to review the videos. Two of them thought the shooting seemed justified. One felt it may not have been.
A TRAFFIC STOP TURNS DEADLY
First, let's review the basic facts, which we can glean from the footage:
On a warm August evening, the sun is just starting to set as two Pasadena police officers pull a car over on Raymond Avenue for not having a front license plate.
One officer asks the driver of the vehicle to step out after the driver said he had a suspended license.
The officer's partner -- Officer Edwin Dumaguindin -- asks the passenger, McClain, to exit the car.
But after doing so, McClain takes off running. Dumaguindin starts to give chase. He yells, "Stop right now!" and then fires two shots, about four seconds after McClain started running.
McClain is wounded but continues to run up the street before he's captured.
One bullet hit McClain in the lower right back; another grazed his left shoulder, according to the coroner's report. The bullet that struck him in the back hit a lung before exiting from his chest.
McClain died later that night at Huntington Hospital.
PROBLEMATIC TACTICS OR 'WHAT NEEDED TO BE DONE'?
The videos show problematic tactical decisions, according to Timothy Williams, Jr., who served nearly 30 years with the LAPD and is now a use-of-force expert and private investigator. He wonders why Officer Dumaguindin didn't call for backup before opening fire at a fleeing McClain.
"He could have gotten on the radio and cordoned the area off and perhaps got him in custody without perhaps shots being fired," Williams said.
Use-of-force expert Maria Haberfeld disagrees. She teaches Police Science at John Jay College in New York.
"I say it frequently, use of force -- especially use of deadly force -- never looks pretty," she said. "But in this case, it's pretty much what needed to be done, unfortunately."
The Pasadena police department said both officers saw McClain holding a gun as he ran.
It's hard to see a gun in the videos. Williams couldn't see one.
"Unless the officer has some trick vision he was using, the only thing he saw was [McClain's] back," Williams said.
That wasn't the conclusion of use-of-force expert Ed Obayashi, who also felt the shooting was justified.
"It appears that you can see that there is a[n] object that resembles a handgun," said Obayashi, who has advised numerous law enforcement agencies on the use of force.
Both Williams and Obayashi agree, however, that the videos would have to be enhanced and slowed down to be fully analyzed.
We don't have Officer Dumaguindin's body-worn camera footage of the shooting -- Pasadena Police said he did not have his body cam turned on when he opened fire -- so the videos that were released to the public show the incident from the perspective of his partner's body cam and the dashboard cam, both of which were farther away.
"This officer is a lot closer, he is in a position to clearly see that that's a gun," Obayashi said.
The videos show McClain's hand at his waist as he ran, but his family's lawyers said he was holding a belt buckle.
Police say a witness saw McClain toss a gun into the street. Officers recovered a handgun from the scene and the department says a lab confirmed that McClain's DNA was on the weapon.
IS A GLANCE OVER THE SHOULDER SUFFICIENT REASON TO SHOOT?
According to the police, Dumaguindin opened fire because McClain briefly glanced back at him over his shoulder as he ran, causing Dumaguindin to fear that McClain might turn and shoot.
Williams argues that would not be sufficient cause to open fire, even if the officer believed McClain was holding a gun.
"Him looking over his shoulder is not an imminent threat," he said.
Haberfeld and Obayashi disagree. "Those are prompts in an officer's radar perceiving the highest degree of danger he or she will ever face in their career," Obayashi said.
Haberfeld said looking back over your shoulder as you run could mean you're trying to see if you're getting away, or you could be determining whether you want to turn and shoot.
"That's not the type of decision that needs to be scrutinized if somebody's looking at the police officer's decisions, because absolutely one of the options is that he's trying to assess how he can shoot at the officer," she said.
THE 'SIXTH SENSE OF SUSPICION'
Haberfeld talks about a concept in police literature called the "sixth sense of suspicion," related to intuitive calls officers make in the field.
It's one reason she's more likely to trust the account offered by police who experienced an incident in real-time, even in cases where the video evidence doesn't directly back it up.
"I would say we need to give them the benefit of the doubt," Haberfeld said.
Williams has a much more skeptical take on police statements.
"That's total BS," he said. "Just because a cop says it's so, you gotta prove it. When I was on the department, I went out there, I had to corroborate their statements and sometimes their statements couldn't be corroborated."
Ever since the killing of George Floyd, police are under greater scrutiny when they use deadly force.
The law gives officers wide leeway. The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that a police officer is entitled to use deadly force only when "the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."
In a seminal ruling four years later, the high court said the determination of the reasonableness of an officer's use of force:
"must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments -- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving -- about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation."
In California, a new state law has raised the bar for when an officer can shoot someone. It now must be "necessary" -- previously it only had to be "reasonable."
That still leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
A MAN TURNING HIS LIFE AROUND
McClain's sister, O'Asha Bales, has watched the videos too, and she wants the Pasadena Police Department to admit that shooting her brother was a mistake.
"I keep looking and I keep looking and I'm like, there was definitely other ways you could have done that," she said.
She remembers her younger brother as "always laughing -- even when you would tell him, 'It's not a time to laugh' -- he just couldn't help it."
Bales, who lives in Ohio now, grew up in Pasadena with her little brother.
McClain didn't have an easy life, she said, noting that their mother died when he was five years old.
There was a robbery conviction in 2008. At the time he was killed, Bales said her brother was turning his life around.
"He went through depression, suicidal thoughts, and he had finally started to say, 'I'm going to live this life,'" she said, adding that McClain was proud of his three children and was working on starting a clothing line.
The loss of her brother, along with the other police killings in Southern California and around the country, have taken a toll on her.
"I don't really feel anger. I'm tired," Bales said. "It's every other day ... We don't understand why this just keeps happening and then there's just no accountability."
- Essay: Reading About Anthony McClain Felt Like Reading My Own Obituary
WE ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS