Joshua Cohen is a principal at Fat Pencil Studio
SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Most urban police departments have a team trained in the use of military tactics and equipment including assault rifles, armored vehicles, and night vision cameras. These have become important tools in responding to crisis such as terrorist attacks. But bringing all that firepower into dense urban neighborhoods carries a significant risk of unintended consequences if things don't go as planned.
A local police tactical unit was conducting an operation to serve an arrest warrant on an individual residing in a North Portland townhouse apartment. The plaintiff resides in a separate building immediately to the east of the target of this operation. At around 9:45pm, the plaintiff stepped onto his front porch to confront a person or persons he believed to have been prowling in his back yard. Shortly afterwards, three officers were involved in shooting him.
No advance warning was given to neighborhood residents for this military-style raid involving 20+ officers, three armored vehicles, and an aerial surveillance unit equipped with an infrared “night vision” camera system. After confronting the strangers that walked through his yard, plaintiff claims that (1) he was ordered to “get back in the house,” (2) officers never identified themselves or their purpose, and (3) after retrieving a handgun in the hopes of scaring them off, he was shot almost immediately, having never raised his arm or fired his weapon.
Defense witnesses claimed they did identify themselves as police officers, and only fired after seeing the plaintiff square up and point the gun directly at them. They also explained their decision not to notify neighbors in advance by saying secrecy was required for a successful operation.
Fat Pencil was hired by plaintiff’s counsel to help visualize the scene and also rebut a defense theory that muzzle flashes visible in surveillance camera footage were evidence of plaintiff firing his weapon.
THE VISUAL STORY
We created a digital 3d model of the scene based on hand measurements and photographs, then added human figures and weapons in positions suggested by deposition testimony. We also added the bullet strike locations on the house, as surveyed by police investigators, and checked to see if the lines connecting bullet strikes to officer positions were feasible.
From the surveillance video, we captured frames that included muzzle flashes and overlaid them with the 3d model in order to match the perspective. This allowed us to infer a camera position and draw a “shadow plane” connecting the camera with the roof overhang that occluded a view of the plaintiff. The shadow plane moves as the camera changes position, but our analysis made it clear that flashes visible on the video footage were all connected with guns fired from the officer’s position, and not by the plaintiff.
A federal jury awarded $7 million in damages to plaintiff, finding tactical officers liable for battery and negligence. “The aerial view of the scene proved useful in court when for asking officers to confirm their position,” said plaintiff’s attorney Michael Rose of Creighton & Rose, PC. “We had already used the 3d model to piece together where they had to be based on their statements and evidence collected at the scene, so we were confident in letting them provide this testimony.” Plaintiff’s attorney David Park added, “The ability to fade between the infrared camera surveillance video and a matched view in the 3d model made the scientific process much easier to understand. The jury saw that our client’s position was not visible to the surveillance camera at the time of the shooting… not even close. This made us less vulnerable to an attempt by the defense to create a false impression around who fired their weapons.”