Did Local Network Affiliates Make the Right Call in Airing "Difficult to Watch" Police Video? They Believe They Did.
By now, you are undoubtedly familiar with the sad story of Cole Berardi, the 10-year-old boy who died last week after he was struck by a police car while riding his bike. It was the lead story on all the local TV stations once again last night, after Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle released the video from the incident, which was captured by the dash-mounted camera inside Sr. Cpl. Michael Vaughn’s squad car.
Kunkle tells Unfair Park today the decision to release the video was not discretionary; he says state open records statues required him to do so. Pending litigation could have made the release an exception, but a lawsuit has not been filed -- though Berardi's mother and stepfather, Carrie and Brett Inman, have retained attorney Harry Jones. Kunkle adds that it has been his and the department’s policy to release video tapes, as they represent objective depictions of events.
“Frankly, on this one, I wish that wasn’t our practice, because it’s terribly difficult to watch and it’s intrusive to the family, but I don’t think we had a choice to release it,” Kunkle tells Unfair Park. Although he has yet to speak with Vaughn, Kunkle says he is on administrative leave. “He is traumatized, and his family is traumatized in a way that most people will never experience in their lifetime,” Kunkle says.
After the jump, local TV news directors on their decision to air, or not, the complete footage provided by the Dallas police.
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Vaughn was driving 72 mph in a 40-mph zone without flashing lights or sirens. Until Kunkle amended the policy yesterday to restrict officers to drive within the posted speed limit during Code 1 responses, Vaughn was required to drive within the normal flow of traffic. Code 3 responses, which involve the use of lights and sirens, previously allowed officers to drive with “due regard for the safety of people and property” until that was changed to restrict officers to drive up to a maximum of 20 mph more than the posted speed limit.
Kunkle was careful in commenting about Vaughn, as a lawsuit appears likely, but says, “He was not operating within our policy.”
Each of the four local TV stations made different decisions regarding what was aired of the tape, with KDFW-Channel 4 broadcasting the entire video. News director Maria Barrs says she stands by her decision and stresses that the station prepared viewers for what they were about to see.
“It was important to present the whole video, because it showed exactly what happened,” she says. “It showed what the officer saw. It showed the speed, it showed how dark the road was and how fast it all happened.”
KXAS-Channel 5 made the decision to cut away right after impact. News director Susan Tully notes that the video wasn’t used in teases and the station was careful in how it was presented.
“There was a lot in the tape to learn from. We were very cautious in how we used it and not using it ad nauseam,” she says. “Until you see it, you don’t know.”
KTVT-Channel 11 slowed down the footage before the accident, but then faded away just before impact, quickly jumping to footage of a distraught Vaughn standing by Berardi’s bike. News director Scott Diener says the story “hit home for him” as the father of a 10-year-old boy who rides his bike, calling the incident a “terrible, heart-wrenching tragedy.”
“We made our editorial decision to show the edited version of the tape, trying our best effort at striking a balance between letting viewers see for themselves exactly what happened -- how dark it was, how much time the officer had to react and his speed -- without showing the most graphic part of the video,” he says. “We didn’t need to show him getting hit by any means, but we felt it was important that people understood what the officer was doing.”
And finally, WFAA-Channel 8 decided to mix the video with still frames and did not include stills from the impact. News director Michael Valentine says he didn’t struggle with his decision, calling it “a no-brainer.”
“We showed nothing of the accident itself because I don’t know what benefit that serves. We can all imagine what it’s like to see a child get hit by a car, but I don’t think we need to show it, and I don’t think it furthered the story one bit,” he says. “The story was about the speed that the officer was driving, not about the manner in which he hit somebody in the middle of a road. So I just didn’t see what the editorial benefit was to actually show the video of an innocent child being hit.”
Kunkle says Deputy Chief Patricia Paulhill contacted family members yesterday before the footage was given to the press, but they declined the opportunity to see it, referring Paulhill to the family’s attorney. Kunkle also says the family was asked if representatives from the Dallas Police Department could attend the October 21 funeral, but “they didn’t want that.” --Sam Merten