CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Protesters who have filled the streets to push for the release of video of a fatal police shooting could see their task get much harder if Charlotte authorities do not share the footage within a week.
A North Carolina law that takes effect Oct. 1 will declare that the video is not a public record and that only a judge can release it, potentially making the issue far more complicated than if police simply shared the footage on their own.
The law passed by the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature runs counter to a nationwide trend in which some cities are trying to show greater transparency by releasing videos soon after a shooting.
Calls for the release of the video have become the crux of the protests in the aftermath of Keith Lamont Scott’s death. Police have said Scott, who was shot Tuesday, disregarded repeated warnings to drop a gun. Neighbors have said he was holding only a book.
Police Chief Kerr Putney told reporters Friday that at least one body camera and one dashboard camera recorded footage of the shooting. He said “it’s a matter of when” the video will be released. But the chief also cautioned that it won’t happen until the State Bureau of Investigation reviews the evidence.
If that process takes more than a week, the new law is likely to create another set of obstacles. The law says footage from police body or dashboard cameras may only be made public by a judge weighing the requests for its release.
Starting next month, “the agency cannot release it … It’s the court that has to make that decision,” said Jeff Welty, a criminal law expert at the University of North Carolina. Law enforcement will still be able to show footage to victims’ families without releasing it publicly.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the law over the summer, said the debate over the recordings shows the need for the law, which he described as fair and reasonable.
“I assume on October 1, when the new law is enacted, someone will be requesting that tape, and it will most likely go to a third-party arbitrator, which would be the judge,” he told reporters.
Questions about how the shooting unfolded lingered even after Scott’s wife released cellphone footage Friday that shows what led up to the shooting and its aftermath. Gunshots can be heard but not seen in her video.
Republican state Rep. John Faircloth, a primary sponsor of the new law, believes there’s a strong legal argument that any pending requests for video that are not resolved by Oct. 1 would be handled using the procedures established in the law.
Faircloth, previously police chief in the city of High Point for 16 years, said the upcoming rules provide uniformity statewide on how footage will be handled. He disagreed with the premise that the new rules will make it harder overall for the public to see police videos.
Charlotte investigators have said footage from the shooting is currently exempt from public records requests because it is part of an ongoing investigation.
Susanna Birdsong, a legal policy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union, said officials could argue that requests made this week cannot be considered until that investigative process is complete and thus would be subject to the new law.
“They could very well continue to do that, and they could say: ‘This new law went into effect October 1, and we are not allowed to release footage going forward. We need a court order to release it,'” she said in a phone interview.
Birdsong, whose group opposed the law, questioned the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s classification of footage as part of the investigative record.
“To lump all body cam footage as part of criminal investigations doesn’t make a lot of sense and doesn’t serve the purpose that body cameras are supposed to serve, which is accountability,” she said.
The police chief said Friday that the investigation is now in the hands of state authorities who are still getting up to speed.
“A thorough investigation relies on multiple factors, and I can tell you one piece of evidence will never, ever make a good case. I know the expectation is that video footage can be the panacea, and I can tell you that is not quite the case,” he said.
Still, Putney has previously said that the video, when considered with the rest of the evidence, supports the police account. A gun was found next to the dead man, and there was no book, he said.
Justin Bamberg, an attorney for Scott’s family, watched the video with the slain man’s relatives and said it’s impossible to tell what Scott may have been holding in his hands. The family has urged release of the police video.
Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is challenging McCrory for governor in November, has criticized the law, saying it appears to make the public release of video more difficult. He called for the Charlotte video to be made public, as did Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“We must continue in the pursuit of the truth while also continuing the important work of bringing our communities and law enforcement together to build trust and safety for all,” Cooper said. “One step toward meeting both goals is for the videos in this case to be released to the public.”
Robertson reported from Raleigh.