Many of the signs say “Black lives matter,” some read “No justice, no peace.” And some have a simple directive:
“Release the tapes.”
As demonstrators in Charlotte, N.C., take to the streets to protest the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, one of their demands is for law enforcement to show the public video footage of the encounter that led to Scott’s death.
But the city’s police chief says he has no plans to release the footage, and while Charlotte’s mayor says it should be made public “eventually,” she says there’s no time frame for that to happen.
A gun, or a book?
Multiple police cameras captured what happened on Tuesday, when Scott stepped out of his car and was shot dead by a police officer. And it’s at least possible that those videos might answer a sharply disputed question: What was Scott holding before he died?
For now, without the footage, there are two incompatible stories.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Wednesday that Scott was armed with a gun and ignored orders to drop it:
“The officers gave loud, clear verbal commands, which were also heard by many of the witnesses. They were instructing the subject, once he got out of the vehicle, to drop the weapon. In spite of the verbal commands Mr. Scott exited his vehicle armed with a handgun as the officers continued to yell at him to drop it. He stepped out, posing a threat to the officers, and officer Brentley Vinson subsequently fired his weapon, striking the subject.”
Police say they recovered a weapon at the scene and that witnesses corroborate the officers’ accounts.
But Scott’s family has said he did not have a weapon — that he was sitting in his car reading a book. Reporter Tom Bullock of member station WFAE went to the apartment complex and spoke with witnesses. He reports that their accounts back up the Scott family’s description:
“One person that I spoke with … says that she actually saw the shooting and here’s how she described it: ‘That man had a book. I saw it when it fell off his lap when he got out of the car to hold his hands up to show the police that he didn’t have nothing. It fell off his lap right there in the middle of the street.’ …
“Others said that this was pretty common, that [Scott] would sit waiting for his son at a bus stop … and would often have a book. All of the residents that I spoke with say that they just did not see a gun.”
“Your truth, my truth and the truth”
Police confirmed early on that video footage of the shooting exists. Vinson, who was in plainclothes, was not wearing a body camera, but other officers on the scene were. There’s also dashcam footage, police say.
At a news conference Thursday, Putney said the footage does not provide “absolute definitive visual evidence” of Scott pointing a gun, though he said it does support “the version of the truth” that police officers gave.
He said Scott’s family has requested access to view the video and that “we are looking to accommodate that request.”
But given the ongoing investigation and the possibility that a federal agency might eventually take over the process, he said he will not be releasing the footage to the public.
A reporter asked whether releasing the video — if indeed it confirms the police account — might have helped quell the recent violence in Charlotte.
“I would like to think that but I can tell you this … there’s your truth, my truth and the truth,” the police chief said. “Some people already made up their minds what happened.”
“Transparency is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.
No time frame for release of video
Charlotte’s mayor, Jennifer Roberts, spoke to NPR on Thursday and said the video would be released “eventually.”
“The policy has been that until all the piece of evidence are in place, until the witnesses have been interviewed, until we can gather a full picture, that we are not releasing that,” she said.
“I don’t have a time frame,” she said. “At one point, yes, we will have that be public.”
The decision stands in sharp contrast to the path followed by the city of Tulsa, where an unarmed black man was shot by police on Friday. The police released video of the shooting on Monday.
Roberts said that in the case of the Charlotte shooting, releasing the videos “would be helpful if the footage is clear.” But she said that not having seen it, she wasn’t sure if the footage was in fact conclusive.
(In the case of the Tulsa video, the city’s mayor recently told NPR that the footage “speaks for itself.” The New York Times has an interactive project that illustrates how in some cases, video evidence can be less than clear-cut.)
Meanwhile, protesters say the lack of public video footage makes them question the police narrative.
Bria O’Neal explained her skepticism to WFAE’s Michael Tomsic.
“The police have given us no reason to actually take their word for it,” O’Neal said. “There’s videos. They all have body cams. Why can’t someone just come out and say, ‘Oh, here’s the video, take it for what it is and see for yourself.’ However, they want to be all secretive and deceptive about it.”
New state law: release not required
The calls for transparency in Charlotte come as North Carolina is about to change how it handles police video footage.
The state passed a law this summer that excludes body cam and dashcam recordings from the state’s open records law, meaning that they’re not a matter of public record.
Gov. Pat McCrory has signed the bill into law, but it doesn’t take effect until Oct. 1, the ACLU notes.
Under the new law, people who are heard or shown in the footage, or their representatives, can request access to view (but not duplicate or distribute) the footage. Releasing the footage to the public will require a court order.
Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., told NPR that in one sense, the law is restrictive — but that some other states are even less transparent about how the public can access footage.
“In most states, even when footage is public record, there’s a loophole that enables law enforcement to decide whether they want to share in the first place,” she explained.
La Vigne led a study into state laws on police video footage. She says one thing is true regardless of what each state’s laws require:
“I think … it’s very important that agencies share the footage when there are high-profile incidents,” she said.
That transparency gives the public “some level of confidence that they’re taking it seriously and they want to treat it in an objective and unbiased manner,” she said.