One Saturday evening in early June, Laura Cole was home getting ready for dinner with her husband and two kids when her cell phone rang. It was Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, the head of communications for the San Diego Police Department. As she hung up, Cole knew the quiet weekend she had planned with her kids, ages 3 and 5, was about to drastically change.
Takeuchi told her San Diego police officers had shot a man named Leonardo Hurtado Ibarra in downtown San Diego and news of the shooting was already making the rounds on social media. It was less than a month since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and protesters were still out on the streets across the country, including in San Diego. A crowd quickly gathered at the site of where the 25-year-old Ibarra was shot.
Cole immediately got to work. She owns and operates Critical Incident Video, a media and communications company, that works with police departments to release video footage of incidents where an officer shoots someone. “My phone rings at all hours of the day, even on weekends, because I have made myself available to law enforcement,” she says. “My work starts the moment they put out that first news release.”
After a long career as a television news reporter, Cole started the company in 2019. She now works closely with law enforcement agencies in cities across California, including San Diego and Pittsburg, and has made 50 videos in the last 18 months. The departments send her much of their internal information: body camera videos, surveillance videos, 911 calls, witness interviews, and police reports. She wades through it all to write a script and produce a seven to 10-minute video that she says is meant to tell the public what happened.
But some critics ask whether her work is necessary, or even ethical. Departments pay at least $5,000 for a produced and edited video, instead of releasing all the raw footage or making the video themselves. And while Cole and the police departments insist she is an objective third party observer, others wonder how objective she can be when she’s being paid by the departments.
Tasha Williamson, an activist in San Diego, does not approve of Cole’s work. “Someone is getting rich off the murder of another human being,” she says. She also doesn’t trust the videos to tell the full truth of what happened. Under state law, departments are not required to release all the raw footage until the investigation into a shooting is complete, which could take years. “Release the whole entire video, not segments of the video,” Williamson says. “People need to see a full picture. If we’re going to talk about transparency, then release all the videos.”
Releasing all the raw footage would resolve the controversy around Cole’s work, but police departments generally refuse to do that. They say it would take hours to prepare the raw footage—including blurring bystanders’ faces, addresses, and license plates—and slow down the process of getting information to the public. And, Cole says, it might be too much information for the public to absorb. She says her work is necessary, because she’s an objective third party observer, and she distills the raw footage into a package that communicates what happened to the public. “We want to be clear and factual,” she says.
She says her former journalist background makes her objective, and that she strives to be sure nothing important from the raw video is left out. “I get it,” she says of comments like Williamson’s. “But at same time, I really make sure that the full story is included in the video and that it’s not just about departments trying to make themselves look good.”
Cole says her outsider perspective is also important to keep police from lapsing into jargon in the videos or trying too hard to make it seem like the shooting was justified. For example, Cole advises departments against calling the person who was shot a suspect. “When you call someone a suspect, or show their criminal history, that looks like you’re trying to justify the police officer’s actions,” she says. “That’s saying the person was wrong and we’re right.”
Her work involves watching videos of police shooting people over and over again. She says it’s the hardest part of her job, but that she knows it is even harder for the person’s family, and she keeps that in mind as she works. “It is extremely heartbreaking and it weighs on me,” Cole says. “I do worry about the mental toll, but I also realize the work I’m doing for the community is very important. God calls us to have jobs in life, and this is mine.”
Cole has watched videos of shootings, stabbings, even people lighting themselves on fire. “But I know if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” she says.
Another rough part of the job: It can feel like no one is satisfied with her work. “Sure, community members don’t like me—they say I’m in bed with the cops—and some police won’t like me because I’m forcing this transparency, but I have to do what I can,” she says.
Takeuchi of the San Diego Police Department says he has found her work to be very straightforward. “In the videos, it’s about getting straight to the point, this date and this time, this was what the officers were called to,” he says. “We need to get people the relevant information.”
Brian Addington, the police chief in Pittsburg, CA, says he hired Cole after noticing releases from other police departments that had a more conversational tone. “They were more creative in their postings, and I wondered, how did she teach these cops to write like a normal person instead of using cop jargon?” he says.
Addington also said that Cole isn’t afraid to stand up to police, even chiefs. Cole agrees: “I’m pretty sassy and strongly worded when I need to be,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s not the department who pays me, it’s the taxpayers, so it’s my responsibility to take that seriously. I’m not afraid to tell a chief they’re wrong.”
She wouldn’t go into specifics, but said one of the times she had to stand her ground was when editing a video where the officer was clearly at fault. Making sure her video clearly and honestly depicted what had occurred took some “tough conversations with those at the top of the food chain,” she says. “I know at the end of the day, the worst thing they can do is fire me, and then I can tell everyone they fired me,” she adds.
Cole is firm about the need to release information to the public, even when it shows officers in a negative light. “When they make a mistake, they need to be the first ones to come out and release that information,” she says. “They’re scared—they won’t say that—but they’re scared. I tell them, it’s okay, own it, because you’re asking for help in building relationships in your community.” Cole says she has never had a client ask to deliberately hide what happened in a video, and if they did, she would say no: “If they wanted to hide something, they wouldn’t come to me.”
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