Newly released body camera footage from a deadly encounter at “Cop City” has left locals with more questions than answers. Last week, speculation around the events that led to the Jan. 18 shooting in South River Forest has grown since the Atlanta Police Department released videos from officers in the vicinity of where environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán was killed and a Georgia state trooper was injured.
An investigation into the incident by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is ongoing. GBI released a statement the morning of the shooting, which claimed Paez Terán shot at officers first and was killed by returning gunfire. Activists have questioned the law enforcement narrative that Paez Terán shot first without warning.
The family of Paez Terán shared findings of an independent autopsy that found the activist had been shot over a dozen times. “They were a pacifist and had no intention of resorting [to] violence as a way of defending themself,” said their mother, Belkis Terán.
In all, APD has released four videos from the incident. Each video shows a different officer’s angle of the same 40-minute period. At some point in the video, voices come in over the radio confirming that shots are fired and eventually that an officer has been hit.
In the last week, viewers have zeroed in on a segment from one of the videos where an APD officer says, “You fucked your own officer up?” Activists who have spoken out against the construction of Cop City say the video is confirmation that the trooper was shot by friendly fire, not by Paez Terán.
GBI issued a statement saying the conversations between officers in the footage is not evidence against its narrative of what happened.
“The initial assessment given by the GBI concerning the incident is still valid,” GBI said.
Following the decision to release the footage, APD released a statement on what officers are saying and the ongoing investigation.
“In reviewing our officers’ Body Worn Cameras footage, it is apparent the shooting situation evolved quickly and our officers had no immediate knowledge of the events at the shooting site at the time the shooting occurred,” the statement reads. “Several responding officers are heard commenting about the shooting as they approached the site. We have found no evidence to suggest these officers had any information on the events surrounding the shooting prior to their comments.”
To gain a better understanding of what we do and don’t know with the release of the footage, we spoke with Caren Myers Morrison, associate professor of law at Georgia State University. We focused on one 40-minute video where officers are walking through the trees, clearing the area of tents, when the shots ring out.
Here’s what we learned reviewing the footage with Morrison.
The initial gunfire
The shooting begins 18 minutes into the video with four shots and escalates to multiple weapons all firing at once in quick succession.
“I heard four shots at a particular rhythm … and then I heard what sounded like shots being fired from one person, and then there was what sounded like popcorn, when it’s really fast,” Morrison said.
“That would be consistent with shots being fired by someone or something and then responsive fire, because the fire and response after those first four shots is much faster,” she added. “It’s coming from different weapons.”
What suppressed gunfire is, and what it tells us
A suppressor is similar to a silencer on a gun. It reduces the recoil and muffles the sound so the gunshots aren’t as loud.
According to Morrison, while a regular person can get a suppressor, typically they are reserved for SWAT or special operations.
In the footage, Morrison says there is rapid suppressed gunfire that begins after the second round of shooting begins.
“There’s four shots fired by someone who does not have a suppressor, and there’s responsive shots much faster from also people who do not have suppressors on their guns,” Morrison said.
The officers’ reactions
As mentioned, there has been a lot of speculation over conversations and phrases used by officers. After the shooting, Morrison said she heard a few different phrases come over the radio that caught her attention, specifically, “real shots fired,” “hold,” “jaguar,” and “blue.” What follows is a voice saying, “That’s either a firework or somebody’s shooting at us.”
The term “blue” is typically code for law enforcement, but Morrison said she doesn’t understand the meaning of “jaguar.” Morrison asked her husband — a former Mississippi police officer and current federal agent — who said “jaguar” could refer to another code name for law enforcement.
“I think the main thing is you’re not really getting a clear picture at all of what’s happening because you can’t see the shooting. You can hear stuff and at the moment that it’s happening, nobody knows what’s going on, either, so I would say inconclusive,” she added.
Motives behind releasing the video
APD has not explained why they released the footage. Morrison thinks APD decided it would be the best option for transparency.
“Maybe they thought that not releasing it made it look more like they had something to hide, but releasing it doesn’t really do much, one way or another, given the fact that the people who were involved in the shooting weren’t wearing body cameras,” Morrison said.
Morrison points out that, like locals combing through the tapes, APD officers are too far away to see or clearly hear the verbal commands.
GBI statement vs. footage
Georgia does not regularly issue body cameras to its troopers, drawing criticism from those who say it is a crucial tool for the public to hold law enforcement accountable. In GBI’s original statement, it says Paez Terán shot at troopers without warning after ignoring verbal commands and was killed by returning gunfire.
“It sounds to me like there were four shots fired, and then there sounded like there was a response,” Morrison said. “What you don’t know is, were the four shots fired by an officer who made a mistake or misfired or something, or were they shot by the guy in the tent?”
Though the footage raises those questions, it does not significantly poke holes in the GBI’s version of events.
“There’s nothing inconsistent with what [GBI] said,” Morrison said. “I mean, look, who knows? But it’s not inconsistent.”
Paez Terán, nor any of the officers involved in the shooting, are visible on the footage.
“We don’t know,” she said. “There’s no way of knowing without more information.”
GBI has said it will release all the available footage of the shooting after it has completed its investigation.
APD said they will be releasing footage on a rolling basis but have not provided a timeframe for when future videos will be released.