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We Tried to Obtain Footage of Michael Reinoehl’s Killing. Police Say It Doesn’t Exist
The four law enforcement agencies involved in the killing of Michael Reinoehl, the man who appeared to admit to shooting and killing a right-wing protester at a pro-Trump rally in Portland earlier this month, say they do not have any video footage of the incident.
That apparent lack of footage is critical, considering that the narrative of what happened during the attempted arrest of Reinoehl in the town of Lacey, Washington, is so confusing. An eyewitness interviewed by VICE News said he did not see Reinoehl pull a weapon; U.S. Marshals, who led a fugitive task force arresting Reinoehl, initially said he drew his weapon on officers and was subsequently shot. (The Marshals told VICE News that "per policy, we cannot comment as this is an ongoing investigation.") The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office (TCOS), which was not involved in the shooting but is investigating the Reinoehl killing, clarified that he had a handgun at the time of his death, but the TCOS wasn’t yet sure whether he drew or fired it.
President Trump has described Reinoehl's killing as "retribution."
“As far as our team is aware at this point we have no video at all,” said Lieutenant Ray Brady of the TCOS, adding that all agencies and police forces involved in Reinoehl’s death confirmed that no dashcam, body camera, drone, Ring, or helicopter footage exists of the fatal encounter.
VICE News filed Freedom of Information requests for body camera footage and/or audio of the incident with the U.S. Marshals, the Lakewood Police Department, the Washington Department of Corrections, and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, which all had officers on the scene at the time of the killing. The Lakewood Police Department has not responded to the request yet; the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office rejected the request, citing an ongoing investigation; and the Washington Department of Corrections and U.S. Marshals have not yet acknowledged the request. Normally, FOI requests are at least acknowledged within a day or two, VICE News filed these requests 10 days ago.
As of 2016, nearly half of all police departments nationally had body cameras, and roughly 70 percent of departments have in-car dash cameras. But it's possible and perhaps even likely that the law enforcement agencies involved in Reinoehl’s death have no video of the actual incident. This is, in part, because some of the agencies involved have actively pushed against having always-on cameras.
Lakewood Police and Pierce County Sheriff’s officers do not have or wear body cameras. Pierce County Sheriff’s department vehicles do not have dash cameras. Lakewood Police pledged to install patrol cars with cameras in July, after backlash from the community about comments made by police chief Mike Zaro about the effectiveness of body-worn cameras; it is currently unknown whether the police car used in this case was outfitted with a camera.
At a June 22 council meeting, Jason Whalen, deputy mayor for Lakewood, a town in western Washington and south of Seattle, said that requiring body cameras would be useful for situations precisely like the September 3 Reinoehl killing: “A picture may be worth a thousand words for the benefit of the officer and/or the benefit of the public to ensure that use of force,” versus the “subjective, after-the-fact review by an officer involved.”
“A camera, no matter what angle, or where it’s at, or who’s wearing it, will never capture what an officer thinks or feels,” Zaro said in response, adding that ongoing conversations about police brutality are more about “what looks bad” than anything else. The conversation then turned into a discussion of whether journalists would try to “get their hands on [footage] and throw it on CNN.”
At a council meeting in late August, Lakewood city council member Alan Hart said that “freedom of information is a pretty important issue if we start talking about body cameras … if an officer came to our house or business, his camera would be activated and someone could see those tapes based on a freedom of information request. We might not want that.”
It is worth noting that Washington State is one of the few states that has extensive stipulations for what types of footage can be obtained by reporters, and has broad exceptions for videos that might violate someone’s privacy.
Police have been known to lie about whether camera or audio footage exists of a high-profile police killing. For example, it was recently revealed that at least one of the police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor was wearing a body camera at the time, despite claims to the contrary from the Louisville police. Tuesday, reporters revealed that officials in Rochester, N.Y., spent months attempting to suppress video footage of the killing of Daniel Prude.
If footage of Reinoehl’s killing does exist, it will likely be uncovered by the TCOS. Lesa Pickett, a legal assistant working on freedom of information cases in Thurston County, told VICE News that any footage is, at the moment, exempt from freedom of information requests because there is an active investigation.
Pickett said that the department is investigating this case because none of its officers are involved, and that it has deployed a “critical incident investigation team” that will collect any and all footage (as well as lots of other evidence) that exists “from other agencies that were involved.” A freedom of information officer for Pierce County Sheriff’s Department declined our FOI request citing an active investigation, but said when asked on a follow-up call that officers there do not have body cameras or dash cameras, and that she did not see any responsive records in her system.
“I think [cameras] are in the works, but you know how that goes,” they said. “I don’t know how long that will take. I’m sure there will be something.”