Moments after Mayor Jennifer Roberts pledged transparency in the police killing of Keith Scott that sparked violent overnight protests, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said his department will not release body camera footage from the incident.
Putney claimed he is unable to release the footage because state law requires a court order to publish such videos. “The law is pretty specific, especially around criminal evidence for an investigation,” he said. “I cannot release that.”
But that’s not true, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina told ThinkProgress. The controversial law prohibiting police officials from releasing such videos to the public is not yet in effect.
“Of course he doesn’t need [a court order] now. It’s entirely in the department’s discretion,” ACLU NC communications director Mike Meno said. “We’re urging Chief Putney and CMPD to release this footage in the interest of transparency.”
“It’s entirely in the department’s discretion.”
The new state law stripping local officials’ decisionmaking authority over police camera footage kicks in on October 1. After the end of next week, citizens and officials alike will need a court order to get videos like these released in the public interest.
But until then, Meno said, Putney has all the authority he needs. “Where you have a situation like this where there are conflicting accounts from police and community members, it’s in the public interest to release footage that can shine a light on what happened,” he said. “Not only can this hold officers accountable if they’ve abused their power, but if the officer’s being accused of something they haven’t done it can show that as well.”
Attorneys and public information officers for the city of Charlotte and the CMPD did not immediately return multiple requests for comment.
If Putney’s own statements at a Wednesday press conference about officer Brently Vinson’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott are accurate, the decision not to release the footage makes little sense. Putney said there is hard evidence disproving multiple pieces of the story that Scott’s family members told of his death in the hours before a peaceful protest bubbled over into civil unrest that left 16 cops injured.
Family members said Scott was sitting reading a book and did not have a gun. Putney says detectives recovered the gun and did not find a book.
Initial reports also indicated that the officers who happened upon Scott while executing a warrant for another man’s arrest were in plainclothes, leaving the 43-year-old father to wonder if he was about to be attacked by strangers. But Putney said three of the officers at the scene were in uniform and that the plainclothes officer who killed Scott was wearing a vest with the department’s insignia clearly visible.
The chief also said Scott was given repeated loud verbal warnings to drop the weapon police recovered. The videos would presumably verify that key point.
Putney did acknowledge, however, that the videos may not contain the entirety of the encounter. “The videos I’ve reviewed, I cannot see in totality everything that occurred,” he said at Wednesday’s presser. He also said it was “a matter of seconds” between officers’ verbal warnings to Scott and Vinson’s fatal shots.
Vinson himself was not wearing a body camera on Tuesday, Putney said. That means that any footage ultimately released will omit the perspective of the officer who actually fired the fatal shots. The same is true in Tulsa, OK, where officer Betty Shelby never activated her own dashcam but fellow officers’ footage shows her killing unarmed 40-year-old Terence Crutcher last Friday.
Meno said the ACLU-NC is “looking at all our options” for potentially forcing the release of Tuesday’s footage. He also noted the group “have questions about why” Vinson himself was not wearing or did not activate his own body camera.
All of this will become moot in another 10 days. The law Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed in July recategorizes all police-shot video footage, which is currently considered public record. The legislation passed with bipartisan support, but over the public opposition of at least three chiefs of police around the state, Meno noted.
“We have a long history of transparency and accountability,” Mayor Roberts said Wednesday morning, “which, again, we remain committed to.”
UPDATE: CMPD attorney Mark Newbold later contacted ThinkProgress to clear up the confusion. Putney was invoking a different piece of law — state statute 132–1.4 — which says that “records of criminal investigations” are not public records. The statute also says such records “may be released” by a court order.
Newbold acknowledged that doesn’t quite amount to an explicit prohibition on releasing videos like this, and that “there’s no matrix that spells things out.”
“The way we’ve interpreted that is if something is in the very early part of an investigation we won’t release it without a court order,” said Newbold. “It’s fair to say we have several competing interests we had to weigh.”
The department’s interpretation of the existing law also suggests that even if investigators were to determine that Vinson’s killing of Scott was not a crime in the remaining days before McCrory’s new gag law kicks in, CMPD might still deem the videos an investigative record requiring a judge’s order for release.
But by the same token, the department’s process of weighing competing interests might change in the coming days if officials decide publishing the videos becomes essential to restoring confidence in their department and investigation.