More US police shootings are being caught on camera - but that doesn’t mean you’ll see them
Charlotte police refuse to release footage filmed by officers to protect investigations and citing a law that does not come into effect until October
For three nights, enraged residents here have taken to the streets in both peaceful and violent demonstrations following the fatal police shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott.
Police have said Scott was armed with a gun that he raised toward an officer. Scott’s family members have said he had a book in his hands. Activists have noted that North Carolina is an open carry state – and that even if Scott was armed, they want to see proof of him raising the weapon in a way that would justify lethal force.
Body camera video of the incident could settle the dispute over whether Scott was armed, but police and city officials so far have declined to make the video public.
Last year, Charlotte became the first city in North Carolina to equip all of its uniformed officers with body cameras. While the officer who shot and killed Scott was in plainclothes and not wearing a body camera, officials have said that parts of the interaction were captured by body cameras worn by other officers as well as a dashboard mounted camera.
This tussle – between public calls for transparency and police pleas for patience – has played out in dozens of US cities in the past two years. Citing cases such as the shootings of Walter Scott, where video upends the police narrative of events, many activists argue that the only way they can know for sure what happened in an incident is if officials release video.
Police departments often say that releasing the video too soon could undermine their investigations into these incidents.
“I’m going to be very intentional about protecting the integrity of the investigation. We release it when we believe it’s a compelling reason,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney said during a news conference on Thursday.
Initially, police in Charlotte said that they could not legally release the body camera video of Scott’s shooting, citing a state law passed by the Republican legislature this year that bans the release of body camera footage without a court order. However, that law does not go into effect until October 1.
Charlotte’s resistance to calls to release the video is not without precedent. While the increase in use of body cameras has led to more shootings being captured on film, most of those videos are not immediately released.
Of the 706 fatal police shootings that have occurred so far this year, The Washington Post has found that at least 90 have been captured on a body camera, 30 by a dash camera, and another 54 were recorded at least in part by a bystander or surveillance camera.
Those numbers represent an increase from 2015, when out of 990 fatal police shootings, the Post was able to identify 71 that were captured on body camera, 14 caught on dash camera and 70 with some other type of video.
However, more fatal police shootings being caught on camera does not mean that the public is seeing more of those videos than last year. Some videos are filmed by bystanders.
However, most body camera and dashboard camera videos depicting police shootings are not released by police departments until after the formal investigation of the incident is complete, a process which can stretch for months and in some cases years.
“Transparency is the bedrock of rebuilding trust,” said Phillip Goff, co-founder of the Centre for Policing Equity. “At a moment when public trust in police is in crisis, it’s necessary that police leaders, city leaders and community leaders put a focus on transparency.”