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What is the line between newsworthiness and exploitation?

Yesterday I posted on social media that I was faced with an internal debate after coming into possession of video footage of an altercation between Windsor Police & a now deceased suspect who was wielding a machete at the public in the downtown core. The video clearly shows police shooting the suspect and him falling to the ground.

The debate I was faced with was whether I should release the video for the public to see. I asked on Facebook and Twitter whether I should release the video so the public could “assess the situation” or if it was newsworthy to “see exactly what the police response was?” I ended my question stating that I was leaning towards not releasing the video.

But more on the video in a bit.

Background

On Monday August 15 at around 2:30pm a man wielding a machete in the intersection of Ouellette Ave. and Wyandotte St. was both tased and shot by Windsor Police Service officers.

After being transported by paramedics to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU) released his name, Allan Andkilde, 70.

According to SIU, after Windsor Police Service officers located the suspect, there was an interaction where one officer deployed a Conducted Energy Weapon and another shot the man with their service weapon.

SIU is an independent civilian law enforcement agency which conducts criminal investigations into circumstances involving police and civilians resulting in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault.

A probe was launched by SIU and six investigators are assigned to the case which is expected to last months.

Video

On Tuesday afternoon I came into possession of a roughly one minute video showing the seconds leading up to the shooting of the suspect by a Windsor Police officer, the subsequent arrival of other police cruisers and officers, and then officers responding to the suspect on the ground.

The video also clearly shows both police officers with their arms raised holding weapons, although it is impossible to tell which officer is holding the Conducted Energy Weapon and which is holding their service weapon. What is clear is that both officers are holding weapons simultaneously.

The video is brief and shows exactly what you’d expect: a crowded street, the interaction, and the response. That’s it.

My Involvement

I first learned of the incident while broadcasting on-air on radio when my phone and inboxes started to fill with tips from members of the public letting me know something was happening downtown.

First it was a traffic incident, then reports of a police involved shooting followed by chattering about blade, and then finally the clearest picture of the truth: that a suspect wielding a machete was shot down by police.

As the news continued to trickle in, I received a screenshot from a source that has now made the rounds of social media. It shows the suspect brandishing the raised machete over his head with his right arm directed at a Windsor Police officer whose back is to the camera. That this photo was taken by a member of the public on what I imagine to be a cellphone and not a trained photographer is astounding; the framing of the subjects are precise, evoking the phrase, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.

It was at this point that I figured my involvement in the story had come to an end. Having reported on it initially on-air was my first true reading of breaking news on the radio in my professional career, and then receiving – and sharing – a photograph of the incident affirmed to me that I’d done my part.

Working in news media is strange in that you are thrown into the middle of some of the most distressing stories you can imagine, diving deep in and immersing yourself in the details, both mundane and relevant, and then attempting to distance yourself after the fact. Stories are stories, and there will always be more. Regardless of the facts, no matter how bleak, sad, or tragic, there’s always a compartmentalization required to be able to “turn it off” at the end of the day, and that’s where I thought I was at…but as most journalists know, you really can’t just “turn it off”, even if you want to.

I wasn’t expecting to receive the video of the shooting, but when I did, I watched it and stopped in my tracks. The video played through on a loop for about 5 minutes as I watched in detail every frame, body movement, and response, watching the seconds pass from altercation to shooting to additional officer response, over, and over, and over again.

Ethical & Journalistic Responsibilities

It was at this point that I was faced with my internal debate of whether to release the video for public consumption. On the one hand it was clearly a newsworthy video showing an altercation between a dangerous member of the public who was wielding a machete, and police officers responding to him and resorting to deadly force when the blade was turned on them.

How the police responded, whether there were attempts at deescalation, and how quickly the decision was made to shoot the suspect are all questions deserving of public consideration.

Rarely is the public presented with unvarnished views of Canadian police engaging in weapon discharge, and in this case, there is not only a video, but its release was my decision, and that weighed heavily on me.

I’ve made the decision against releasing the video, and I’d like to explain why.

While on the one hand is the newsworthiness of the video, on the other hand there is an individual who is no longer with us, his family and friends who have been affected in unthinkable ways, and an officer who took a life which is undoubtedly weighing heavily on them and their mental health.

After reading through comments on my social media posts about whether to release the video, it was clear the opinions were highly polarized: people either believe the video needs to be released for the sake of accountability, transparency, and because of its inherent newsworthiness, while others view it as exploitation of a death of a community member clearly in need of help, murder-porn, and that it is just morally wrong. There really is no middle.

I find it very interesting that the comment section very much resembled the internal debate I had found myself in.

At the end of the day, while I am in possession of the video and able to release it, I’m not quite sure what purpose it would serve at this time. There is an investigation ongoing and to release it now for people to form their own decisions would be irresponsible on my part.

I’ve decided the best course of action for the time being is to share the video with SIU for their investigation, which I have done, and to retain the video in my records.

SIU submission confirmation SCREENSHOT
SIU submission confirmation SCREENSHOT

I’m not the only one with a copy of the video, and while I can’t be sure that it won’t make its way onto the internet, I can rest well knowing that I won’t be the one to exploit a tragic situation when it was not necessary.

I should note that I have been contacted by numerous individuals requesting the video to either watch or publish; I have yet to reply to those requests, and will refuse each, providing a link to this piece which I hope explains my motivations.

If there’s a need to release it at a future date, I retain the right to do so. If not, I won’t. But now is not the time.

Thinking Bigger

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my decision to withhold the video from public consumption, I hope you will consider what occurred at Ouellette and Wyandotte more broadly.

This tragic situation should not have occurred and need not have escalated to the point that it did.

We know the deceased was an occasional guest at the Downtown Mission and many have mused publicly, both online and offline, that he was suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. He had a violent past in Edmonton and found himself back home in Windsor after spending time in prison and was clearly now in need of help.

It appears as if he did not receive the help he needed when he needed it and that is a fault of our politics.

We need to dramatically increase our level of support, and yes that means budgetary spending, for mental health, community services, affordable housing, and all of the other supports which evidence has repeatedly proven to help our most vulnerable, including the homeless, those addicted to substances, and those with mental health issues.

Our politics, especially in Windsor, has focused far too long on cutting taxes at the expense of not only basic services, but also specialized services, and it’s time we change that paradigm.

Our politics, and our society, needs more compassion. It’s time we not only consider it, but act upon it.

Our community has lost another member, one of our most vulnerable, and we should all reflect on that.

By Jon Liedtke

Jon Liedtke is a writer and musician in Windsor Ontario. He tells stories using words, pictures, audio and video.

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