Analysis: Kentucky bodycam footage shows the tragic reality of policing in America
This is what it means to serve and protect in a nation awash in guns.
Harrowing, yet humbling, body camera footage of two Louisville officers who rushed into gunfire in Kentucky on Monday shows the demands placed upon police who respond to America’s proliferating mass shootings and the terrible price they may pay.
Video of what is effectively a street battle more akin to a foreign war zone than a US city basking in the morning sunshine offers a visceral antidote to the collective national shoulder shrug that often follows gun massacres.
This is a raw, frightening scene, laced with courage and heroism. It offers a reality check about what unfolds in moments of terror and leaves the regular post-massacre political rituals of “thoughts and prayers” and doomed calls for gun reform looking empty by comparison.
Some might question the need for Americans to see this disturbing footage. But it offers context to the bitter and often futile public debate about to how to stop mass shootings and helps the public understand the horror they involve.
The breathtaking video shows rookie Officer Nickolas Wilt driving up to the scene with his training officer, Cory “CJ” Galloway. After they take fire coming from inside the bank, Wilt slams the car into reverse before getting out with his handgun. Galloway races to the trunk to retrieve his service rifle. Then, without hesitating, they both advance up a set of steps – despite having no idea where the shooter, who turned out to be lying in wait, actually was. Suddenly, Galloway is down on the ground, with a minor gunshot wound after a deafening burst of fire. Wilt, who is blurred in the footage, lies shot in the head – another victim of the weapons of war that are often the preferred choice of mass killers. He is a good guy with a gun who was outgunned by a bad guy with a more powerful weapon.
Galloway scrambles for some cover, and then is heard talking to other officers as they try to get a fix on the shooter’s position – behind the glare of glass that means he can see them but they can’t see him. Galloway, focused and in command, strategizes on how to challenge the shooter again and how to aid the fallen Wilt.
Acting quickly is critical. And in a volley of shots, the shooter makes a fatal error, breaking a window in the bank, where four victims already lay dead and one mortally wounded. This gives Galloway a sightline. He shoots and yells, “I think he’s down … get the officer!” referring to Wilt, his trainee, who was shot on only his fourth time out on patrol. He’s in the hospital in critical condition.
“What you saw in that video was absolutely amazing. It’s tragic but it’s absolutely amazing,” Deputy Louisville Police Chief Paul Humphrey said, when he released the video.
“There’s only a few people in this country that can do what they did. Not everybody can do that.”
The Louisville footage was aired two weeks after police in Nashville showed video of police rushing into a school in a courageous effort to stop a shooter who had killed six people, including three nine-year-olds. Both sequences from these recent mass shootings contrasted with footage of police at a mass shooting in a school in Uvalde, Texas, last year where 19 children and two adults died.
While the circumstances aren’t directly comparable, the picture in Nashville and Louisville was of urgency and a need to take down the assailant before more people died – in line with police training for such situations. In Texas last year, the footage showed poor communication, confusion and delay among officers in an operation since criticized by parents and authorities.
As long as America’s incessant cycle of mass shootings goes on – and there’s no sign it’s ending – police will be called to respond. The political system is deadlocked on the issue. Calls for more investment in mental health after such killings never seem to materialize on a scale that might stop the tragedies. And many gun enthusiasts seem to prioritize their right to bear arms over the life and liberty of people gunned down by high-powered firearms.
The inability of politicians to act is a contrast to the courage of those two officers in Louisville.
“It’s just a tragic and brutal aspect of law enforcement in America. Officer Wilt tries to do his job and he is struck down in the course of trying to protect others,” former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday.
“It’s remarkable, heart-pounding, terrifying video to watch. But once again, we have seen an act of incredible heroism that likely saved many lives.”
There is increasing frustration among some police leaders about the risks their officers face while national and state leaders resist changes to gun laws.
Then-Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2022, “We are out outgunned, we’re outmanned, we’re out-staffed, we do need responsible gun legislation.”
And Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna told CNN why his officers have to continue to train for active shooter situations. “We don’t want it to happen. Statistics tell us it will happen,” he said. “And this is where we do challenge our leaders at a national level, to do more about guns, to do more about mental health so that we don’t have to do this over and over.”
The images that have emerged in recent weeks of brave police officers selflessly rushing into danger are different from what Americans may be used to seeing on TV. The police bodycam footage that’s often gained the most attention has shown just the opposite – with scenes of police brutality. For example, the release of horrific officer and surveillance footage from the January arrest of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten by Memphis police officers and died later in the hospital, triggered national outrage.
The split screen is a reminder that while partisan politics often paints a simple impression of the state of policing in America, heroism and cruelty co-exist and reality is nuanced.
Former Philadelphia and Washington, DC, police chief Charles Ramsey told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that authorities had learned about the need to show the public what happened from camera footage as quickly as possible. “I think that things have definitely changed in policing,” he said.
Of course, this was a situation that presented police in a positive light, so they had every reason to release it.
But the footage formed a heroic counterpoint to the depraved behavior of the shooter in Louisville, who live streamed on social media his rampage inside the bank.
Referring to the bodycam footage, Humphrey said: “I think you can see the tension in that video, you can understand the stress that those officers are going through. (The) response wasn’t perfect, but it was exactly the response we needed.”
“I think I would love to have either one of those officers ride with me any day.”