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Police Video Takes On New Life Years After Deadly Shooting

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Police Video Takes On New Life Years After Deadly Shooting

Police Video Takes On New Life Years After Deadly Shooting

Police Video Takes On New Life Years After Deadly Shooting

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/520440716/520440719" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On Dec. 28, 2014, Robert "Bobby" Smith shot police officer Tyler Stewart and himself in Flagstaff, Ariz. The video of that shooting has since experienced a kind of afterlife. Police use it to talk about the dangers they face every day. Others see it as a painful loop that will never stop playing.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a type of police video most of us are used to seeing. It's where a civilian - usually an unarmed black man - is shot by police. But police often watch different kinds of videos, videos of officers getting shot. This is the danger they say they face every day. One of those videos is from Flagstaff, Ariz. It was recorded in late 2014 - a routine call that goes very wrong. For her podcast "Embedded," our colleague Kelly McEvers has the story.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The video was taken from a police officer's body cam. Watching it is like you are the cop. The camera's attached to his glasses. And here's what he knows at this point. A college student has called the police and said her boyfriend has damaged her apartment after a big argument. Officer Tyler Stewart, who is white, has already gone to check it out and talk to the woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TYLER STEWART: OK, yeah.

MCEVERS: Now he's back in his car and on the phone with the boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: Is there anything I can do between you guys? You need someone to exchange some keys, or...

MCEVERS: He's trying to go see the boyfriend in person to get his side of the story. At one point, it sounds like the boyfriend asks if he's in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: Well, I don't know yet. I got to talk to you, and I got to figure out what's going on. You haven't really...

MCEVERS: They make a plan to meet up in a few hours, but officer Stewart is already parked near the boyfriend's house. So he gets out of the car and starts walking there. On the way, he radios in what he's doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: I'll be making a quick stop at Clay Ave.

MCEVERS: He walks up to the back door of the boyfriend's house.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MCEVERS: A roommate answers. Then the boyfriend comes out. He's 28 years old. He's white. He's pretty skinny. He's wearing a winter coat, and he looks pretty nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: Can we talk outside?

MCEVERS: Smith says, yeah, they can talk outside. But first he goes back inside into his bedroom. Officer Stewart follows him but not all the way to the bedroom. Smith comes out with a stocking hat on and his hands in his pockets, and then they both go back outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: You don't have any weapons in your pockets or anything like that?

ROBERT SMITH: No, Sir. I'm just cold.

STEWART: OK.

MCEVERS: And then they just talk. Officer Stewart wants to know about the damage to the girlfriend's apartment, like some nail polish that got spilled on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: The polish - you didn’t state how the polish got that way.

MCEVERS: You can see officer Stewart look down at Smith's pockets. Smith still has his hands in there. And then he finally asks Smith if he can pat him down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: You don’t have anything in here?

SMITH: No, no.

STEWART: OK.

MCEVERS: He reaches out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: Nothing in here?

SMITH: No, just my smokes.

MCEVERS: And then out of nowhere, Smith whips a gun out of his pocket. It happened so fast you can barely see it. And the video just stops. Robert Smith shoots officer Tyler Stewart five times, then shoots himself, and they both die.

This video is the first time we know of that an officer's death was captured on his own body cam. It ended up being watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. Cops share it on Facebook groups and blogs, and they use it in training classes.

So we go to one of these classes to see what the video has come to mean to cops. It's at a hotel in Prescott, Ariz. Jim Glennon is a former cop who now trains police around the country. Right now he's in front of a hotel ballroom full of former and current police officers.

JIM GLENNON: Thanks for having me here at your conference.

MCEVERS: The way Jim teaches his class is to play videos first of cops shooting suspects and then of suspects shooting cops. And the idea is to show how bad it can really get.

GLENNON: This one just came out about a week or so ago.

MCEVERS: Even the most experienced cops can get caught off guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Hang on. Hang on.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Drop your gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

GLENNON: He shot two police officers, and most of you missed the whole thing. If you blinked, you missed it. These are the best of the best. These are SWAT guys. They got guns on him, and he shot two police officers.

MCEVERS: Then Jim talks about the video from Flagstaff of officer Tyler Stewart and Robert Smith. He plays a local news report that shows the end of the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The video - too graphic to show from here - but Flagstaff PD says you hear three gunshots, and the camera goes to the ground.

MCEVERS: Jim waits, lets it sink in. Then he makes his point.

GLENNON: People are programmed to believe violence is what they see on TV. The music starts to well up. You've got a different camera angle. You know the guy's a bad guy. But in real life, it happens in the blink of an eye.

MCEVERS: This is why he says cops need to see videos like this. They need to be prepared for the worst. We should say, though, it is still very rare for cops to get killed on the job, which means there's a danger that videos like these could make them more paranoid than they need to be.

Also, this video shows the last seconds these two people were alive. And now it's being watched in a badly lit ballroom by people drinking Starbucks and eating Danishes. I wonder if that's hard for the officer's relatives, so I go see Tyler Stewart's dad.

Frank, hi. I'm Kelly.

FRANK STEWART: Nice to meet you.

MCEVERS: He lives outside of Flagstaff. Turns out he was a cop, too, for 28 years. And he says he's fine with cops watching the video in hotel ballrooms.

Frank Stewart is a big dude. He lives in a log cabin house in the woods. Tyler used to ride around in Frank's cop car back when he was a kid. Tyler was 24 when he was killed. He'd been a cop for seven months.

Did he like it?

STEWART: He loved it.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

STEWART: He loved every day, told me he never had a bad day.

MCEVERS: Frank was a state cop, and Tyler was a local cop, but they worked the same shift. They would have lunch almost every day.

And so were you working the day it happened?

STEWART: No, I'd actually taken that day off to put together a retirement party for a guy that worked for me, so I wasn't working that day. Otherwise I'd have been with him on that call because it was right around the corner from where my office is. He called me probably four or five times that day. He told me where he was going, that he was going to arrest this guy. So I probably would have gone over there with him.

MCEVERS: Do you think about that a lot, that you would have been there?

STEWART: Everyday.

MCEVERS: What does that sound like in your head?

STEWART: It's kind of hard. But you know, I've got a strong faith in God, and I knew that was Tyler's time to go. So - it wouldn't have mattered if I was there. It - he probably would have died right then anyways - just one of those things.

MCEVERS: A few days after the shooting, police sat Frank down and showed him the video.

Is that the only time you've ever watched it?

STEWART: No. I've watched it three times.

MCEVERS: Around that time or more recently?

STEWART: More recently, I watched it about three months ago.

MCEVERS: How come?

STEWART: Just wanted to see it.

MCEVERS: What are you looking for, you know? Or...

STEWART: I don't know - just to hear his voice again I think.

MCEVERS: I want to know if the video has helped Frank understand what happened.

Don't be offended, but do you look at it and think that there's anything that could have gone differently?

STEWART: Absolutely. Tyler made some mistakes that day. And I'm not afraid to say that because that's going to help other officers that go into that situation. That's what Tyler would want. He made a couple errors, and...

MCEVERS: Like what?

STEWART: The first one is - is he allowed the kid to walk back in the house. And the kid disappeared for a minute, and I believe that's when he went and got his gun.

MCEVERS: Frank says Tyler also could have drawn his weapon first, and he could have called for backup. Frank says the reason Tyler didn't know to do this stuff was he just didn't have enough experience. Just like police trainer Jim Glennon said, you have to be prepared for the worst. But then Frank says thinking the worst can get in your head, too.

STEWART: I never went back to work after that day.

MCEVERS: How did that - I mean you just...

STEWART: I just - I couldn't go back. I didn't think I could be a good cop anymore. It gutted me, and my whole thought process was different. So I just...

MCEVERS: Yeah.

STEWART: I didn't think I could be a good cop anymore, that I would - that I'll always look for the bad in people. And I didn't want to be that way.

MCEVERS: So the question is, can videos like the one of Tyler Stewart's death make officers lose faith like Frank did? Trainer Jim Glennon says it's all about balance. You can watch some of these in training, but the best thing you can do is get that experience on the street.

CORNISH: That's our co-host Kelly McEvers. Her podcast is "Embedded."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN ROMER SONG, "AN OLD FASHIONED MAN")

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