Keith Lamont Scott’s fatal encounter with Charlotte police produced calls from his family, politicians and the state NAACP to release police video footage of the shooting.
And the state ACLU added that the footage should be released before a new law governing access to police video takes effect Oct. 1, moving decisions on release out of the hands of police and into the courts.
The law passed with broad bipartisan support. But at least two Democrats who voted for the law said this week it should be revisited.
The new law is not ideal, Charlotte Sen. Joel Ford said, but is better than what the state has now, because it gives people recorded or their families a way to see police footage. Senate Democrats are far outnumbered by Republicans, and don’t control the agenda, he added.
“The officer has rights, the victim has rights, the public has rights,” he said. “How do we balance those to ensure everyone’s rights are protected and we have transparency? That is the ultimate question.”
Sen. Paul Lowe of Winston-Salem called for revisiting the law to “reexamine how that data may be viewed and/or made public.”
In North Carolina, footage from police body cameras and dashboard cameras is rarely made public. Law enforcement departments release footage at their discretion, and usually deny requests saying the video is part of personnel files or investigations.
The law that takes effect Oct. 1 will require anyone, including a police chief or sheriff, to obtain a court order before law-enforcement dashboard camera and body camera footage is publicly released.
Calls for a gubernatorial veto grew in the days before Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law. He did so surrounded by members of law enforcement, saying the law “ensures transparency.”
McCrory added Friday that the law is intended for just such a situation as the one happening in Charlotte, “in which there’s a conflict between the constitutional rights of individuals going through the judicial process while also the public’s interest in getting as much information as possible.”
“I personally, firmly believe that we have to take the politics out of any release of evidence,” McCrory said. “And frankly I think the new law coming into effect on (Oct. 1) is a sound and reasonable process in which you have a judge who is separate from a police department, the SBI or politicians who can maybe make an independent decision ...”
The law allows people who are recorded, or their representatives, to see footage. The police chief or sheriff would decide whether to grant access. The law enforcement agency can consider a number of factors in making the decision, including whether disclosure may harm someone’s reputation or jeopardize someone’s safety, or if confidentiality is “necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.” If the law enforcement agency denies access, the requester can ask the court for permission to see it.
Releasing footage would require a court order. The judge must consider eight factors, including whether the “release is necessary to advance a compelling state interest,” and whether the “release may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person.”
State Rep. Allen McNeill, an Asheboro Republican and co-sponsor of the new law, said one of the main arguments nationwide around access to body camera footage is about police trying to hide something.
“I think people that would propose the argument that police are trying to hide something would love the new body camera law,” he said. “It takes it out of the purview of law enforcement and puts it with the courts.”
Talk of revising the law before it takes effect doesn’t make sense, McNeill said.
“No one will know whether it will work or won’t work,” he said.
Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, criticized the law after McCrory signed it, saying it was too restrictive.
Cooper’s campaign said Friday he has not changed his mind about the law.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday called the law “disgraceful.”
“As we (have) seen elsewhere, video footage of police shootings can provide crucial evidence of what took place – especially when there are conflicting accounts from police and community members,” the ACLU said in a statement. “Charlotte should set an example for North Carolina by releasing footage of the shooting promptly before the obstacles imposed by the new state law take effect.”
Former state Sen. Josh Stein, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said in an email, “The body and dash camera law was a first step toward transparency because departments can no longer keep video from public review. We need to see how this law works and if changes need to be made, I will advocate for them.”
Republican attorney general candidate and state Sen. Buck Newton could not be reached.
Scott’s family saw the Charlotte police video Thursday. After initially indicating that the public shouldn’t expect to see the footage, Chief Kerr Putney said Friday “it’s a matter of when.”
Scott’s wife provided news outlets with video she took of the moments preceding the shooting and the aftermath, which doesn’t show whether Scott had a gun.
Ford called on police Thursday to release its video.
“Not being able to see that video footage is fueling the fire, is fueling the rage and is creating credibility issues for our police department,” he said. “We have competing stories. We have eye witnesses, family members, then we have the police side. Not being able to see the video is a problem and is contributing to the problem.”
The withholding of police recordings in the Scott shooting is in sharp contrast to the response in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after a black man was fatally shot by a police officer. The Tulsa Police Department released video of the shooting a few days later.
Under Oklahoma’s law, body camera footage is public record. There are some exceptions, but the footage is public if a police officer causes someone’s death. Connecticut, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas also treat the footage as public record, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed.