Video evidence can help public’s responses to police-involved shootings

A police officer in riot gear stood with other officers monitoring protesters Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., following the police-involved shooting death of Keith Scott.
A police officer in riot gear stood with other officers monitoring protesters Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., following the police-involved shooting death of Keith Scott. TNS

In today’s ubiquitous culture of smartphones and videotape surveillance, people are right to feel entitled to see footage of any wrongdoing — especially by police.

In Kansas City, the Police Department has had cameras in its vehicles for more than 10 years — but not body cameras on its officers, as some other major cities have required in recent years.

On Friday, police spokeswoman Capt. Stacey Graves said the department on Monday will announce that it will start testing the use of body cameras by officers. That’s a positive move after about two years of study by the agency.

Video evidence has been used in recurring cases of police-involved shootings around America, often to show that law enforcement authorities acted appropriately to protect their own lives or those of others.

The recordings by police, however, also can serve as evidence to provide the public when the actions of law enforcement personnel are in grave dispute.

The Sept. 16 slaying of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., is the most recent example.

Dashcam and aerial footage of the shooting by Tulsa Officer Betty Shelby showed Crutcher, who was unarmed, walking away from Shelby with his arms in the air. Crutcher wasn’t complying with Shelby’s verbal commands for him to stop and get on his knees. Shelby told investigators “she was in fear for her life and thought Mr. Crutcher was going to kill her.”

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The video evidence and other information were enough for prosecutors on Thursday to charge Shelby with first-degree manslaughter. Court documents said she “acted unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher ... to the point that she overreacted.”

Unfortunately, at least through Friday evening, Charlotte, N.C., officials are following a different line of reasoning in another police-involved shooting of a black man.

Protesters there and Mayor Jennifer Roberts are calling for police to release the video of a black police officer fatally shooting 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday.

Police on Thursday showed the dashcam and body camera footage of the slaying to the victim’s family and their lawyer. The attorney said he couldn’t tell whether Scott had a book, as the family contends, or a gun, as police claim.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said a gun was found next to Scott’s body, and there was no book.

But police have declined to make the video public saying it could undermine the investigation. That lack of transparency by authorities was only made worse Friday when Scott’s family released a two-minute, 12-second video broadcast on MSNBC that Scott’s wife, Rakeyia Scott, recorded on her cellphone at the time of the killing.

It doesn’t show Scott until he is on the ground and doesn’t show whether there is a weapon. But it does include the sound of gunfire and police shouting for Scott to drop his gun.

Two nights of violent protests and arrests followed the slaying of Scott in Charlotte, where the population is about 35 percent black.

The release of the dashcam and body camera footage in Charlotte could help clear up public anger, confusion and frustration in the police shooting of Scott.

The unrest in Charlotte was similar to violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, riots in Baltimore that followed 25-year-old Freddie Grays’ April 2015, death from a spinal injury while in police custody, and the violence after the Aug. 13 Milwaukee police killing of 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith.

Brown’s death led to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has kept needed attention on slayings nationwide of African American males by police.

A lot of the steps taken by authorities in Ferguson because of the unrest have been followed in Charlotte.

The mayor on Thursday imposed a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was deployed carrying rifles in front of office buildings to prevent any violence.

The State Bureau of Investigation also has officially taken over the investigating of the police shooting. That could decrease the likelihood that the police bodycam and dashcam videos of the shooting will be released to the public.

Protesters this week have shouted: “Release the tape!” and “We want the tape!”

That’s the public expectation now and, for transparency’s sake, authorities should comply.