Commentary: Charlotte police, release the video now

Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney has adamantly refused to make public any police video of the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.  This stands in stark contrast to the Friday release by Scott’s family of the wrenching video recorded by the victim’s wife.

Police in riot gear keep demonstrators off the highway as people protest the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

As a legal matter, public release of the police video now rests in the discretion of the police chief. On October 1, however, a new North Carolina law will go into effect declaring that law enforcement video is not a public record subject to public release.

Though there can be legitimate policy reasons to withhold video recorded on police cameras, none appear to apply in this situation where the need for transparency is compelling.

Putney has allowed Scott’s family and attorney to view the video. It was recorded by body cameras worn by police officers as well as dashboard cameras mounted in police vehicles. 

The refusal to release the video has become a rallying cry for protesters in the streets of Charlotte. Putney should release the video immediately to help the people of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the nation understand this latest tragic police killing of an African-American man. This step would begin to assure his community that justice will be done.

The family’s release of cellphone camera video shot by Rakeyia Scott, Scott’s wife, makes release of the police video more crucial. The video shows Scott’s wife screaming that he did not have a gun and that he suffered from a traumatic brain injury. These were red flags for the police to back off and take a less confrontational approach. Their failure to do so suggests serious deficiencies in training regarding the de-escalation of confrontation and the handling of incidents involving people with disabilities.

The country’s recent, belated awakening to the too-frequent police killings of African Americans has been fueled in large measure by the availability of video, often recorded by private individuals on phones.

From the killing of Eric Garner in New York to the gunning down from behind of Walter Scott in South Carolina, to the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, video has disrupted police narratives and given the public powerful images of police officers using force. 

Video of the Scott and McDonald slayings has led to murder charges. In other instances, dating back to the police beating of Rodney King Jr. in Los Angeles, it has led to police discipline and prosecution.

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One key reform to emerge from the increased awareness of police slayings and the value of video has been the growing use of body and dashboard cameras by police. Used properly, the cameras can assist investigators and prosecutors in bringing officers to justice. They can also exonerate officers who have acted appropriately.

The use of cameras, however, has triggered legitimate questions about privacy and release of video to the public.

It is surely appropriate for the police to withhold video from public release that shows victims in distress, or witnesses revealing private information. Imagine, for example, an officer arriving at the scene of a sexual assault.

Investigators also have an interest in withholding video that may jeopardize their efforts by, for example, alerting other suspects that they appear in the video and are likely under investigation. Or identifying witnesses whose identities will then be known to perpetrators and their allies. Investigators may also be concerned that witnesses who see the video will shade their recollections to make them consistent with what they see there.

There is no reason to think that any of these concerns is at play in Charlotte.

Putney rejected calls for the release of the video by saying:  "If you think we should display a victim's worst day for public consumption, that is not the transparency I'm speaking of."

Though the video undoubtedly shows Scott in horrific circumstances, his family has seen the video and asked that it be released. As his survivors, they have the power to speak for him in this matter.

Because the police are under investigation in this shooting, they should not be heard to suggest that release of the video can jeopardize the investigation by alerting them to the identities of witnesses.

Moreover, Putney, as well as the Scott family attorney, who has seen the video, say that the video is inconclusive regarding the central question whether Scott was armed with a gun or a book. It, therefore, seems unlikely that public release of the video will affect witness testimony about this issue.

Rather, the failure to release the video gives the appearance – whether correctly or not -- that the police are circling the wagons to protect their own.

Too often, police departments reject transparency out of self-protective instinct.  That instinct has been enshrined in recently enacted North Carolina law that goes into effect on October 1.  The legislation declares that law enforcement recordings are not public records and are, therefore, not subject to public disclosure requirements. 

It gives the police discretion to allow limited numbers of individuals to view the videos, but also gives the police broad discretion to deny viewing if the videos contain sensitive information, are relevant to an investigation or if their viewing would jeopardize the administration of justice. A court can review a police determination only for an abuse of discretion, a standard calculated to protect the decision of the police. Presumably, if the video is not released before October 1, this law will prevent its public release.

This blanket rejection of transparency is unwise, as the refusal of the Chicago Police Department to release video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald for a year demonstrated.  When a court finally ordered its release, the department, the district attorney and Mayor Rahm Emanuel all suffered substantial blows to their credibility. 

By contrast, the leaders of Tulsa, Oklahoma, seem to have learned the lesson of transparency. They released video of the fatal police shooting of Terence Crutcher relatively soon after it happened.

As the shooting of Scott demonstrates again, police shootings have the power to inflame communities. They are not run-of-the-mill incidents and their investigation should not be treated that way.

These shootings reveal in tragic ways the deep racial tensions that persist in American society. If handled incorrectly, they bring into question the very legitimacy of law enforcement. They call for the greatest transparency possible to reassure communities that investigations are thorough and impartial and that law enforcement officers who endanger the community will be held accountable.

The civil disturbances in Charlotte, Ferguson, Missouri, and other communities rocked by police violence, often are triggered not only by the initial act of violence, but also by the sense that the justice system has failed. 

Putney, the police chief, stated that he would release the video only if he had a “compelling reason.” Chief, what are you waiting for?

About the Author

William Yeomans served as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department and chief counsel for Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is a fellow in law and government at American University Washington College of Law.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.