It has been almost a year and a half since Ariane McCree was shot dead by police in a Walmart parking lot, handcuffed and in possession of a gun, but his family still has a host of unanswered questions.
McCree, 28, had raced out of the Walmart in Chester, South Carolina, a small town an hour north of Columbia, after he was placed in handcuffs when he was accused of stealing a $45 lock in November 2019, police said.
But exactly what happened next remains unclear in part because the responding officers didn’t activate their body cameras until after McCree, a Black father and former high school football star, was gunned down in a hail of police bullets.
“A lot of things do not add up,” his cousin, Tabatha Strother, told NBC News. “But we would have known a lot of this if the bodycam was on."
Body cameras have been hailed as a key tool in enhancing transparency in policing and providing crucial information in use-of-force incidents.
The McCree case, along with the recent deadly police shootings of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant highlight the importance of body camera video for transparency. Of the more than 12,000 local police departments around the country, roughly half have body cameras, but having body cameras doesn’t mean they’ll be used properly.
Experts say police departments need to implement three basic rules in order for the cameras to be effective: tell officers specifically when to hit record, ensure they announce they are filming, and outline clear consequences for when the rules are broken.
But many of the nation’s major police departments don’t follow these basic guidelines. Examining the body camera policies of 28 large police departments in a geographically representative array of U.S. states, along with the policy in Chester, NBC News found 45 percent gave specific instructions for when officers should start recording. Roughly 41 percent required officers to announce they’re recording. And only 34 percent clearly stated there are consequences for not recording.
“The cameras aren’t there just to be there,” said Danny Murphy, the deputy commissioner of compliance for the Baltimore Police Department.
“They’re meant to record interactions to foster accountability and public trust. And departments are setting themselves up for failure if they don't have a real policy.”
Murphy knows this firsthand.
He was previously assigned to revamp the New Orleans Police Department after a Department of Justice investigation found a wide range of problems within it.
With Murphy’s oversight, the department installed a raft of new policies and procedures, including new guidelines on the use of body cameras.
New Orleans police began matching data from the body cameras with officers’ incident reports, checking the accuracy of how police interactions with the public were documented. Body camera video also became part of the police department’s employee review process.
Murphy said the changes led to a sharp increase in officers following proper body camera procedures. Use-of-force complaints plunged by 60 percent – from 45 to 18 – between 2014 and 2018, according to Murphy.
“Body cameras are not a panacea,” he said. “But they are an important foundation for reform. Having the cameras is one thing. Ensuring you're turning on the camera is an essential next step. But then there needs to be oversight and accountability of how we're performing.”
Murphy began working for the Baltimore Police Department in April 2019 as part of a consent decree to help reform the agency after a Justice Department investigation found the agency was engaging in a pattern of unlawful conduct targeting the Black community in violation of both the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination laws.
The new Baltimore body camera policy requires officers to turn them on as soon as possible when responding to an incident.
“In a non-emergency call, our officers are supposed to activate the camera before departing the vehicle to capture that entire incident,” Murphy said. “In an emergency call, we're turning it on the moment that we get the call, whether we have one minute to the scene or five more minutes to the scene.”
That is not what happened in the McCree case.
He arrived at the Walmart in Chester before 9 a.m. on Nov. 23, 2019, according to police.
McCree picked up the $45.87 combination door handle-lock and walked out of the store without paying, telling a cashier to “put it on his tab,” police said.
He returned to the store a couple of hours later and approached an off-duty police officer he knew who was working as a Walmart security guard.
McCree asked how much the door handle-lock cost but was soon handcuffed and led to the store’s loss prevention office, according to state investigators.
Security video obtained by NBC News shows McCree charging at a different off-duty officer who was working security, identified as Sgt. Nicholas Harris, then running to the parking lot.
Harris chased after McCree, but lost him outside the store.
There are conflicting reports as to what happened next.
According to a report by the State Law Enforcement Division, which investigated the shooting, McCree, handcuffed behind his back, ran to his car to get a gun. Some witnesses said he fired it. Others said they never saw him carrying a gun.
The report says Harris told investigators that he found McCree across the parking by a Taco Bell, where McCree head-butted him and then ran off. Harris told investigators he located McCree again, but the handcuffed man was now armed, according to the report.
Harris told investigators he locked eyes with McCree and could see "he had full intentions of killing me." Harris fired several shots, then hid behind a car and called for help, stating he was out of ammunition.
About 11:30 a.m., a responding on-duty police officer, Justin Baker, arrived at the Walmart parking lot. As he pulled up toward the front of the store, he heard a call of “shots fired” over the police radio, according to the state investigation.
Baker exited his vehicle and walked through the parking lot with his gun drawn. McCree appeared from between two cars and Baker opened fire, the report said. Baker then approached McCree and pulled a silver pistol from underneath the front of the mortally-wounded man’s body, it said.
State investigators would later determine that Baker fired 13 rounds and Harris 11. No shell casings from McCree’s gun were found.
Baker would go on to tell investigators that McCree had pointed a gun at him and refused to comply with an order to drop his weapon.
But there was no way to verify that account – Baker switched on his body camera only after McCree was struck down by police bullets.
There is, however, some video from Baker's body camera of the moments leading up to McCree’s death. Outfitted with an auto-record feature, his body camera was set to save the previous two minutes of video — without sound — once he hit record.
The Chester Police Department released the body camera video in June as the case was receiving renewed attention in the wake of George Floyd's death while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
But for many, including the McCree family, the distant video with no audio raised more questions than answers.
Eric Piza, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, reviewed the body camera video of McCree’s shooting for NBC News.
“What stood out to me first and foremost was actually how little I learned about the situation from watching the video,” said Piza, who specializes in analyzing what leads to police use-of-force encounters.
“We don't hear any of the police officer orders or we have no idea if he was ordered to stop and if he was ordered to drop his gun. We have no idea if the officer even saw a gun,” he added. “All of these things are missing in our review of this incident.”
South Carolina’s attorney general declined to press charges against any of the officers, citing self-defense and the defense of others. The U.S. attorney is investigating the case.
Baker is no longer employed by the department, though police officials declined to say why. Neither Baker nor Harris responded to requests for comment. Two other off-duty officers who worked security with Harris at Walmart that day also did not respond to requests for comment.
Chester’s then-Police Chief Eric Williams was suspended in January and an interim chief was named after state investigators opened a probe into the department's finances, according to the Rock Hill Herald.
Before his suspension, Williams declined to comment on the McCree case to NBC News. He previously defended the officers involved.
“When someone is pointing a firearm at you and walking toward you, I don't know of a whole lot of de-escalation that you can insert in that situation but to respond," Williams said last June.
The city of Chester did not respond to a request for comment. NBC News reviewed the police department's body camera policy last September, but it's not clear whether it has been updated.
The Chester Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. Williams also did not respond to a request for comment.
The McCree family, meanwhile, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department.
In an interview with NBC News, McCree’s brother Michael called for strict body camera policies nationwide.
“A lot of people's lives are at stake,” Michael McCree said. “And people are taken advantage of because of the cameras not rolling.”
CORRECTION (May 3, 2021, 9:15 p.m. ET): A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Ariane McCree's cousin. She is Tabatha Strother, not Tabitha.