On the heels of public unrest over Tuesday’s fatal police shooting of an African-American man, civil liberties advocates have called on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to release any video footage of the incident.
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said Wednesday that his department will not release any footage of the shooting that killed Keith Lamont Scott until its investigation is complete.
“We're still going through all of the footage from both body-worn and dash (cameras),” Putney said. “But until the investigation is complete, it's part of the investigation that can’t be released.”
A new state law will soon prevent police agencies from releasing body camera footage to the public without a court order. But open government advocates and the ACLU note that the law does not go into effect until Oct. 1.
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“In the interest of transparency and accountability, and particularly in light of conflicting accounts about the shooting, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department should quickly release any and all footage it has of the events leading up to the shooting, as well as the shooting itself,” Karen Anderson, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement Wednesday.
Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, agreed.
“If the police chief wants to release that video today, under the current law, he absolutely can,” Jones said. “I think the Charlotte police department would be well advised … to release that video.”
‘A bad bill’
Jones said the violent protests that erupted following Tuesday’s shooting illustrate what can happen when video footage isn’t quickly released.
Police officers say they saw Scott armed with a handgun when he exited his vehicle at a University City apartment complex Tuesday afternoon. But a woman who said she is Scott’s daughter claimed on a live-streamed video that Scott was unarmed when he was shot. The video went viral.
“You have two different narratives emerging about what happened,” Jones said. “The police video is the best possible opportunity to resolve that question of which version is accurate …This situation is exactly why the law that the General Assembly passed – and Gov. McCrory signed – is a bad bill for public transparency.”
Body camera footage is not now spelled out in state law as public record, and law enforcement agencies have often made it inaccessible to the public by declaring the video part of personnel files. The new law says the footage is not a public record or a personnel record.
The law allows people who are recorded, or their representatives, to see footage if law enforcement agencies agree. The police chief or sheriff would decide whether to grant access.
A court order also will be required for the general release of police camera footage. Even law enforcement agencies that want to release the footage must obtain a Superior Court judge’s order.
Will body cams help?
The officer who shot Scott was undercover and wasn’t wearing a body cam, Putney said Wednesday. Other officers on the scene were wearing body cams.
The police department issued body cameras to all of its patrol officers in September 2015, saying the devices would increase transparency during confrontations.
But in a review of police shootings earlier this year, the Observer found that in four cases where Charlotte police shot and killed suspects from December through April, only one shooting was captured by the cameras.
The cameras aren’t worn by SWAT officers or members of tactical units who apprehend violent criminals. Officers in those units were involved in two of the four shootings.
Another shooting involved an officer who was working a second, off-duty job at Northlake Mall and shot an armed teenager on Christmas Eve. That officer wasn’t authorized to wear a camera for his moonlighting shift.
Observer Staff Writer Katherine Peralta contributed.
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