VALLEJO, Calif. (KTVU) - Vallejo police this week released body camera video and an 81-page report stemming from a fatal officer-involved shooting of a man who they say had been riding erratically on a bicycle.
The video shows the moments before and after Ronell Foster, 33, of Vallejo was shot to death by Officer Ryan McMahon on Feb. 13, 2018.
Internal investigation reports, following a California Public Records Request by 2 Investigates seeking all police documents involving excessive force, reveal McMahon reported he stopped Foster because he wanted to "take this opportunity to educate the public on the dangers" of bicycling in and out of traffic on Sonoma Boulevard without a headlamp on at 7:40 p.m.
The report goes on to show McMahon reported Foster looking at him with a "deer in the headlights look" and "based on the way [Foster] was looking at him, he believed that 'something was wrong.'"
"For an officer to look at someone and say 'oh he didn't smile and wave at me so he's a potential threat' is completely insulting and completely inappropriate," said Henry Gage III, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability. "Nothing in that video looks like that officer was educating Mr. Foster about safety. Let's be clear here. There was no underlying crime."
McMahon did not activate his body camera until after he opened fire on Foster. The buffer video before he activates the device does record moments before the shooting, but it does not have audio and is about 30 seconds long. McMahon said he didn't turn on his body camera until after the shooting because there was "a lot of stuff going on." He told his superiors that Foster grabbed his flashlight and he feared for his life.
"Without even thinking about it, I had my firearm out," McMahon told an Internal Affairs investigator.
McMahon was also one of six officers who shot and killed 20-year-old Willie McCoy as he sat in the front seat of his car near a local drive-through restaurant this February, a shooting that has sparked a public outcry and one of several factors that led the police department to recently invite in the Department of Justice to help them with public relations. McMahon and those officers were placed on leave.
Vallejo police did not respond to questions about McMahon's current work status as of Tuesday.
The video's release also prompted some critics to point out that the video is heavily edited and seems to be pushing the police narrative even further, while the department countered that the captions and slow motion effects are helpful tools to provide clarification when images are unclear.
“Body camera video is supposed to be a transparency tool. But police are trying to weaponize these videos,” Gage said. “They use words like ‘rising up,’ when he in fact was just sitting up. They edit these videos to help them make their argument.”
Police said the video was not redacted and released in full. However, most of the beginning portion of the video was edited to be viewed in slow motion and contains captions such as, “Foster continues to resist, “Foster now has Officer McMahon’s flashlight,”and “Foster is rising up.”
Capt. Lee Horton responded in an email: "We released our video presentation to help provide context and accurate information about what actually happened." He said the department slowed the video down and provided labels so the public could "make their own determination." He noted the last four minutes of the video, after the shots were fired, is raw and unedited. Most of the video is dark and grainy and hard to decipher.
2 Investigates spoke to Laura Cole with Cole Pro Media. Her company consults with law enforcement agencies across the state.
"I think it's irresponsible for law enforcement to put out video without context," she said. "The community doesn't know what they're look at. That being said, there is a difference between providing context and telling people how to feel.
There is no law against editing body camera footage, as long as police departments also release the full, unedited version too, as Vallejo did. Various departments handle it differently. For example, Mountain View police released video of officers speaking to the YouTube shooter, Nasim Aghdam, adding captions in for dialogue that was hard to hear. By contrast, Oakland police released raw video with no editorializing when releasing the video of the fatal shooting of Joshua Pawlik.
A day after Foster was killed and long before the body camera footage was released, police issued a news release stating that McMahon and Foster were engaged in a “violent physical confrontation.” The officer deployed his taser, but it was ineffective and Foster then managed to “forcibly take away a metal flashlight from the officer and armed himself with it, presenting it in a threatening manner,” according to the news release. “The officer, fearing imminent and serious physical harm, discharged his duty firearm.” Police reiterated that same message in captions on the video.
A locksmith who lived nearby also told police he heard the officer telling Foster to stop and that Foster's tone was "angry and aggressive." This witness said that the officer tried to everything to restrain Foster and that he believed McMahon had no other choice but to shoot, the police report states.
The medical examiner found seven gunshot wounds in Foster's body, four of them were fatal. The police report also stated that Foster had handcuffs on, but it's not clear when he was restrained.
Like McCoy's family, Foster’s family also hired civil rights attorney John Burris to sue the police department and the city in federal court.
In a 2018 statement, Vallejo Police Chief Andrew Bidou expressed condolences for the Foster family but also took at at Burris' counter-narrative.
"The information provided by Mr. Burris today has the power to undermine the true relationship between the Vallejo community and police," Bidou said at the time.
According to Burris' lawsuit, Foster had been on his bicycle talking with a group of friends and when he began to ride away, a police officer started to “stalk” him.
Burris also states that Foster was unarmed and struck over the head with a flashlight, causing a gash in his head. He was also hit with a stun gun. After he was tased, Burris said he tried to run away again over an alley fence.
Some of this encounter was captured on the blurry, which Gage watched. But he said he didn't see much of anything.
“All I saw was a lot of shadows and a man on the ground,” he said.