A couple weeks ago I posted Scott Henson’s account of an incident in which he was confronted by police in Austin, Texas, after someone phoned in a possible kidnapping after apparently seeing Henson (who is white) playing with his granddaughter (who is black). The story went viral, and eventually made national news.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has since shot back, and released video which contradicts a couple parts of Henson’s story. He has also released an email exchange he had with Henson in which Henson asks him not to release the video. You can read Henson’s version of these developments here.
Henson has done some great work over the years on the issues I cover, and I can’t recall any other occasion in which his credibility has been seriously called into question. He says that in the heat of the moment, he misremembered a couple details (most notably, that a police officer pointed a Taser at him), which seems entirely plausible. He also misreported that a constable called in for backup after he told her the girl was his granddaughter. Given that Henson had been stopped and questioned once before while out with his granddaughter, it isn’t difficult to see why he’d be irritated when he was stopped again, then angry when confronted shortly thereafter by a swarm of Austin cops, and then perhaps inclined to remember a version the events that paints Austin PD in a worse light than was justified.
It seems like in the end, Austin PD handled the situation about as well as could be expected, and that at the same time, Henson was justified in being angry and frustrated at how he was treated. A man should be able to take a walk with his granddaughter without having to answer to a posse of cops. But Acevedo makes a good point as well. If Henson had kidnapped the girl and the department hadn’t thoroughly questioned him after receiving the tip, and then let him go, there would be quite an uproar. I guess we could blame the person who saw an older white man out with a young black girl and immediately assumed “kidnapping!” but it seems possible, even likely, that the tipster’s intent wasn’t malicious, either.
That said, Henson’s pleading with Acevedo to not release the videos that contradict Henson’s version of events is unfortunate. If we want police to release video that implicates cops, it’s unfair to ask them to sit on video that vindicates police officers accused of wrongdoing–or that at least supports their version of a disputed incident. Henson’s explanation for asking Acevedo not to release the video is understandable. He writes in the comments to the linked post above that once the story went viral, he began receiving racist comments and email, which include some explicit threats against his granddaughter and her mother. So he didn’t want video of the girl going public. I can sympathize with his position, although it seems like it would have been better if he’d asked them to blot out or conceal her identity in some way rather than asking that they not release the video at all. If I were in his position, and the video showed the cops had been lying, I’d certainly have wanted it to be released, but perhaps in a way that concealed the girl’s face.
In the end, the case illustrates the value of recording police interactions with the public. Video may not always reveal the whole truth, but it usually gets us closer to it. That’s important when holding misbehaving cops accountable. But it’s also important to help sort out disputed cases like this one, where video supports the police officers’ account of the incident.