Police filmed disabling dash cam after being warned they’re on video

Posted at 1:49 PM, Feb 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-17 13:49:32-05

St. Louis, MO -- A dash camera recording from April 10th, 2014 captured a police stop after 911 calls reported shots fired. A 911 caller reported a car, "fleeing north. It has big rims on it."

A St. Louis City police officer flagged a car he said was speeding east on Lafayette. The dash cam shows the suspect put on his blinker and make a U-turn. The officer then activates his lights and the suspect pulls over. On the tape you can see a passenger get out. Police cuff him for traffic warrants. Then you can hear yelling for the driver to get out of the car. An officer can be heard yelling, "Right now!"

After about four minutes, an officer opens the door and police pull the driver out. You can hear officers yell, "Get down!" First you can see three officers, then a fourth runs in and kicks towards the male driver's head. There`s more kicking, then you can hear tazing. An officer yells, "On your stomach now." The suspect yells, "I can't move."

Officer Kelli Swinton, the 2013 winner of "Officer of the Year" stands watching. Then, she walks away from the confrontation and towards a dash cam. You can hear her yell, "Hold up, everybody hold up. We red right now. So, if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait."

The officers look up and pause. The audio dies. The officers start to move again and the camera shuts down.

Attorney Joel Schwartz said, "They're worried about cameras and they don`t want anyone to see what they`re doing. So, they turn the tape off."

Schwartz is suing St. Louis City Police on behalf of his client Cortez Bufford. Schwartz says officers did not have the right to order Bufford out of the car. Schwartz added, 'The probable cause statement was simply made up.' Chris Hayes asked, 'How so?' Schwartz answered, 'Our client wasn`t speeding, he didn`t make an illegal U-turn and he didn`t abruptly pull to the curb. Those are all figments of the officer`s imagination.'

Police say they found marijuana and a loaded handgun in Bufford`s pocket. The police report says an officer noticed it before the tazing and announced, "He has a gun." The report continues, "In an attempt to prevent (Bufford) from reaching the weapon, (an officer) administered one foot strike."

Schwartz said, "You didn`t hear anything, you didn`t see anything about a gun and that`s because it didn't happen."

The prosecutor dropped the charges against Bufford, after seeing the police dash cam tape. The original charges included "unlawful use of a weapon."

Brian Millikan is a police union lawyer who represents one of the officers on the video. He said, 'The use of force that was used in this case was a direct result of the defendant`s actions or the suspect`s actions. If you`ll notice, there was a passenger in that vehicle. He voluntarily removed himself. He complied with the officer`s requests and commands. There was no physical force necessary.'

Millikan says the officer had the right to order Bufford from his car when the officer was heard saying on the video, 'I can smell marijuana.' Millikan added, 'That`s the first thing. The second thing is he actually sees marijuana on the console.'

Millikan believes the tape backs up the officers claims Bufford had a gun and he said the officers 'recovered a gun. They saw the gun in his pocket.'

Chris Hayes asked attorney Millikan, 'The fact that dash cam was turned off, are you concerned that could cast doubt on everything your client claims?' Millikan responded, 'Well I would hope not because the resisting at that point was over anyway and you know I can`t comment on the fact that it was turned off because I`m not involved in that aspect of the investigation, but everything you see happen on the tape is what happens. There`s nothing that followed."

The City of St. Louis provided the dash cam in question and another view showing Cortez Bufford in the back of a squad car. Those videos, however, do not contain audio.

Our investigative partner for this story, Robert Patrick with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, explained how the addition of more video through body cams, might not mean you'll see more. Patrick said, 'The Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster just sent a letter late last month to the legislature suggesting that the Sunshine Law be changed so body cam footage and in car camera footage will be a closed record, meaning the general public won`t have any access to it.'

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson told us it's currently up to the city counselor's office, what can be released legally. He said, 'I want to be open. I want to be transparent, but there are some things that I have to follow through a process.'

An internal affairs investigation exonerated the officers accused of excessive force and disciplined the officer who turned off the camera. She's appealing.