‘They’re peaceful’: Pa. State Police release dashcam video from I-676 protest tear-gassing

Police load arrested protesters into a Sheriff’s Office bus after closing Route 676 in both directions.

Police load arrested protesters into a Sheriff’s Office bus after closing Route 676 in both directions. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 6:13 p.m.

The Pennsylvania State Police have publicly released never-before-seen dashcam footage from a law enforcement vehicle stuck on Interstate 676 in Philadelphia just before protesters were tear-gassed in an incident that became international news.

Taken from the camera in PSP patrol unit K1-15, the video does show a masked protester who approaches and spray-paints a small circle over the windshield of the trooper SUV, obscuring much of the camera’s field of vision.

The footage, requested by WHYY News, does not appear to otherwise corroborate accounts of violence circulated by Mayor Jim Kenney’s office in justification of the tear-gassing. Officials said demonstrators, who were protesting systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, had trapped the lone trooper and begun rocking his vehicle. In the dashcam video, law enforcement can be heard describing the protests as “peaceful.”

“While on the roadway, the crowd surrounded a State Trooper, who was alone and seated in his vehicle, and began rocking the vehicle, with the trooper having no safe means of egress,” said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw in an initial statement, released on June 1, the day of the event.

Several other public records also appear to contradict Outlaw’s statement, which drew immediate criticism from activists and civil rights groups.

Although the state police released several hours of footage on Tuesday, only about 50 minutes are fully visible before the windshield is painted over. The portion of the video just before the gassing of demonstrators shows several troopers in a staging area on the highway, a few blocks west of the protest.

The officers are seen donning SWAT gear and conversing, before an unidentified trooper pulls away in K1-15 and heads toward the protest. After battling gridlocked traffic in the eastbound lane of I-676, the trooper comes to a complete halt in a severe traffic jam just as the first scattering of protesters approaches.

“All traffic is stopped. Repeat, they’re peaceful, just walking eastbound,” says an unidentified voice over the police radio, describing the protests.

A Philadelphia bike patrol officer approaches the dashcam. The trooper exits his vehicle to speak with the officer just before the bulk of demonstrators approaches.

“It’s just me right now, everything is shut down. I’m going to try to keep my long gun out of view,” the trooper says.

Both men then appear to leave the vicinity of the SUV. In the following minutes, a mass of protesters slowly surround the empty vehicle. Aside from the spray-painted windshield, the vehicle appears to be otherwise undisturbed. No rocking is visible in the footage. Shortly afterward, screams can be heard as police begin to deploy tear gas canisters.

About 10 minutes later, the trooper re-enters his vehicle.

“I’m ready to go man, ready to fucking move them,” says the trooper.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Deana Gamble, communications director for the mayor’s office, said the discrepancies between video footage and initial statements were merely the product of the commissioner “relaying information that she was provided at the time” in initial statements. She said the police Internal Affairs Division and an independent auditor were still investigating the incident.

“This video will be included in that review, and so it would be premature to comment on it,” Gamble said.

Although Kenney has defended the city’s use of tear gas as a “last resort” method to suppress unrest, he has asserted that he learned of the decision to fire canisters only after the confrontation. Last week, he said officers would be held accountable if investigations found that the Philadelphia Police Department commander on scene, who ordered the deployment, had acted prematurely.

“We did not, and would never, pre-authorize or give police officers free rein to use any type of force against peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional rights,” he said. “If we discover that any officers used force inappropriately or without proper authorization, we will deal with it swiftly and accordingly.”

State police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski insisted that the videos had been released unedited and “in their entirety in the interest of transparency.” However, approximately 42 minutes of footage leading up to the encounter with protesters has no attached audio. Though several other state police vehicles can be seen on the roadway in the clips, Tarkowski said footage from K1-15 was the only “recoverable” video of the incident.

Tarkowski did not immediately respond to questions about the discrepancies.

In an email, he said, “The department continues to review the incident.”

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