Updated: Charlotte’s police chief says video of a fatal shooting is no “panacea,” but the city’s mayor wants the footage to be made public.
Updated | Friday, 11:23 a.m.
After a second night of angry protests over the fatal shooting of Keith Scott by a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, the city’s police chief admitted that dashcam video of the incident, which has not been made public, does not include “absolute, definitive, visual evidence that would confirm that a person is pointing a gun.”
“I did not see that in the videos that I’ve reviewed,” Kerr Putney, chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said at a news conference on Thursday. “What I can tell you, though, is that, when taking in the totality of all the other evidence, it supports what we’ve heard and the version of the truth that we gave about the circumstances that happened that led to the death of Mr. Scott,” he added.
At least one witness to the shooting, which took place on Tuesday afternoon as officers were searching for someone else and came across Scott sitting in his car, said that the victim was not holding a gun, as the police said, but a book.
Chief Putney, who has resisted demands from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and others to release all video of the shooting recorded by other officers and by cameras mounted on patrol cars, said that his department only releases footage “when we think it is in the public’s interest.” In this case, he told reporters at a news conference, “you shouldn’t expect it to be released.”
Asked by one incredulous reporter how withholding the visual evidence could be squared with the city’s promise of full transparency, Putney said, “I never said ‘full transparency.’ I said ‘transparency,’ and transparency’s in the eye of the beholder.”
Scott’s family has asked to see the video and Putney said that request would be honored, but he could see no compelling reason to make images of the killing available to the public. “The party right now, who really is my priority, in honoring their request, is the people who really are the victims of the shooting.”
Putney’s reading of the situation, that only family members of a man killed by a police officer have a compelling reason to see the evidence, clashes with an alternative interpretation: that the community as a whole is harmed by every instance of police misconduct and the public has a right to see information gathered by the force employed to keep it safe.
While the public remains unable to see and evaluate the visual evidence, fueling suspicion, one defender of the officer’s conduct, Todd Walther, a local police union spokesman, has been allowed to review the video. Walther appeared on CNN and seemed to suggest that the video supports the contention that Scott “was armed when he exited the vehicle,” before being shot and killed.
At a news conference on Wednesday, the police chief had claimed that he was prohibited by law from releasing the video, since it was evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation. However, lawyers for the local CBS News affiliate, WBTV, have written to the police department asking for the video to be released in accordance with North Carolina’s current law on public records, which says that the “circumstances surrounding an arrest,” must be divulged.
As the WBTV correspondent Nick Ochsner notes, though, a revision to that law, passed by the North Carolina General Assembly and due to take effect next week, allows the police to withhold video from the public unless a court orders it to be released.
This is not the first time the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has refused to release dashcam video of a fatal shooting that angered the public. As Leon Neyfakh reported for Slate, three years ago a similar recording convinced Putney’s predecessor, Chief Rodney Monroe, to pursue criminal charge against one of his officers, Wes Kerrick, for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jonathan Ferrell.
That video, however, was not made public until Kerrick’s trial. While it confirmed that Ferrell, who had crashed his car and was then mistaken for a robber by a woman he asked for help, was unarmed when he was shot 10 times by Kerrick, the video also showed that he did run in the officer’s direction.
Although Kerrick – who had turned off the dashcam in his car – was charged with voluntary manslaughter, his trial ended in a mistrial last year, with the jury split 8-4 in favor of acquittal.
Anger over the failure to convict that white officer in the killing of a black man who was clearly unarmed helped set the stage for the outpouring of rage this week at the perceived injustice of Scott’s killing. Although the officer who shot Scott was also black – and some of the protesters filmed engaging in violence this week were white – the force is viewed by many black residents of Charlotte as biased against them.
In the immediate aftermath of Scott’s shooting, his distraught brother told a local news crew that pressed him for a comment: “All white cops are fucking devils – and white people.”
UPDATE: Later on Thursday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Twitter feed reported that Chief Putney told CNN the video was not recorded from an angle that would show if Scott had a gun in hand.
Hours later, demonstrators chanted for the release of the video during street protests in the city, as my colleague Alice Speri reported from Charlotte.
On Friday morning, Charlotte’s mayor, Jennifer Roberts, told CNN that she does want the video to be made public, eventually, but called the visual evidence “inconclusive.”
At a news conference later on Friday, the police chief said he still opposed doing so. “I know the expectation that video footage can be the panacea,” Putney said, “and I can tell you that is not quite the case.”