After Fatal Shootings, a Stark Divide Over Whether to Release Police Videos

How police refusal to release videos of deadly incidents can stoke public outrage, especially if the community distrusts police in the first place.

By Laura RiceSeptember 22, 2016 11:45 am

A tale of two cities: Tulsa and Charlotte.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, an unarmed African-American man, was shot dead next to his stalled car by police. He was unarmed and police cameras, on the ground and in the air, caught the entire exchange. The videos were released to the public and the expressions of public outrage have been palpable and scathing.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, also an African-American man, was shot and killed by police as he exited his car. Officers were trying to execute a warrant against someone else. Police said Scott had a gun. His family said he had a book. Body cameras recorded video of the incident but those have been withheld from public view. Public outrage culminated in two nights of protests. Last night’s demonstration ended with a protestor shot and critically wounded in what police describe as a “civilian on civilian” confrontation.

Two cities, two victims of similar age and ethnicity, two different policies on the release of incident videos. Can this tale of two cities tell us anything about the wisdom of whether (and if so, when) to release police video?

Kami Chavis, professor and director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law, says cities nationwide constitute a “patchwork” of different policies.

“There’s obviously a lot of distrust in some of these communities, particularly what we’re seeing in Charlotte,” she says, “folks not believing the account that the officers gave.”

Chavis says unrest like this shows that the issue relates to more than just the relationship of the police department to the community and what’s happened most recently.

“Often you’re going to find that there are other deeper issues, economic issues, at work,” she says, “that feeling of disenfranchisement among those who are participating.”

Police departments do have “valid reasons” to hold releasing a video, Chavis says, “for a short amount of time.”

“You don’t want to taint potential witnesses if that tape is out there,” she says. “However, it doesn’t need to be indefinitely held.”

Chavis says the video of Laquan McDonald in Chicago was held for more than a year after the incident.

“When the videotape was released, it gave a very different account than what the officers had given,” she says. “The point is that withholding it from the community, I think, does increase a sense of frustration.”

The goal of body cameras, Chavis says, is to give the community “more transparency” with the police department. “Then it’s crazy to have a policy to say, We’re going to capture all of this footage but we’re not going to show it to you,” Chavis says. “Even the ACLU … they’ve tried to balance privacy and the accountability and they’ve come out on the side of accountability.”

Post by Hannah McBride.