The shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tuesday is a case study in why it’s important for police departments to have good policies surrounding body cameras—in particular around the release of video to the public.
We have called for most video recorded by police body cameras to be kept from the public because of the serious privacy issues that the devices raise, and the fact that the vast majority of video that is recorded is of no public importance. However, where there is a use of force or a complaint against an officer, we think it’s vital that video be available to the public. The public’s interest in monitoring how its police officers are using force is overwhelming. That is doubly so in cases of deadly force—and why we are calling for Charlotte police to immediately release what they have in this incident. As my colleague Gilles Bissonnette of the ACLU of New Hampshire has put it, a video of police use of force
directly illuminates how police operate, helps identify potential misconduct by individual officers and poor policies or training by agencies, and allows the public to hold civic leaders accountable for problems. On multiple occasions, videos of police shootings have not only shed light on how and when police elect to use force, but also on police misconduct.
Protests and/or unrest after a shooting happens when a community a) suspects that an injustice has been done and b) lacks confidence that justice will be achieved by the institutions that are supposed to provide it. Both of those suspicions are all too often well-founded. A police chief can get up and assert that a shooting victim “exited his vehicle armed with a handgun as the officers continued to yell at him to drop it,” but in this day and age everyone has heard such stories before only to have them revealed later to be complete lies. A police chief may have nothing to go on except the word of his officers, and be compelled to support them—but unfortunately we have all learned we cannot trust that word. And, even where a police shooting is legal, that is not the same thing as a police shooting being necessary, due to the unfortunate state of the law in this area.
Release of the video does at least two things:
- It can at a minimum bring some clarity to what took place—in other words answer the first question above of whether an injustice has been done. In many cases the circumstances of a shooting will remain ambiguous and subject to differing interpretations, but in other cases (such as the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina) an injustice will be plain for all to see. If a video shows clearly that a police use of force was reasonable, that is likely to dampen the anger of a community. If it clearly shows that a use of force was illegitimate, on the other hand, that is likely to spark national outrage and force a police department to seek justice through murder charges, as happened in the Walter Scott case. That can help reassure a community that justice will be done.
- Release of a video can at least suggest that a police department is committed to transparency and to letting the chips fall where they may rather than closing ranks to protect its officers regardless of what they may have done. It can do this even if a video is inconclusive or ambiguous and subject to different interpretations.
Police today often complain that a pall of suspicion has fallen upon their whole profession. If that’s true, it’s not because of a few “bad apple” police officers. I think everybody understands that when you’re dealing with any large group of people (in the case of sworn law enforcement officers in the United States, over 900,000) there will be some bad apples. If law enforcement dealt with them fairly and decisively, those individuals would not taint the entire profession. But all too often it looks like “the fix is in”—that the problems are cultural or systemic, that the police get special treatment with regards to justice, that the police cannot police themselves, and that nobody else is doing so.
It is within this frame that people are likely to view police refusal to release video of a critical incident. Are police and prosecutors playing it straight, ready to let the chips fall where they may when it comes to investigating a potentially criminal police action and bringing justice? Or are they circling the wagons to protect one of their own? When Americans suspect they’re seeing the latter, that’s when they’re likely to hit the streets.
Unlike in Charlotte, the police chief in Tulsa at least made a start toward conveying the former stance this week by speedily releasing the video he had of the shooting of Terence Crutcher even though it did not look great for his department. Police often claim that they can’t release video due to an “active investigation,” but as I have argued elsewhere, the purposes behind that exception to transparency are rarely served in the case of police shooting video for more than a short period of time.
As the ACLU of North Carolina points out, an unfortunate new North Carolina law will actually block police from releasing body camera video without a judge’s order—but that law doesn’t take effect until October 1. In the meantime, the Charlotte police should release whatever video and audio recordings they have of this incident.
Obviously release of video is not a magic solution. A particular incident is often just the spark that ignites a dry underbrush of grievances that has grown up for many years. Some communities have many reasons to start protesting—grievances that run deep and involve many problems besides shootings. At the same time, transparency is a big part of the problem, and in today’s world release of video is a crucial part of that transparency.