Two officer-involved shootings of black men this week — one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and another in Charlotte, North Carolina — have presented contrasting law enforcement strategies in the aftermath of such incidents: Release all available video footage as quickly as possible, or withhold it while authorities investigate.
In Charlotte, where police gunned down 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday, the city has opted to keep footage of the incident under wraps. Police Chief Kerr Putney told reporters at a press conference Thursday that body-cam videos from officers on the scene will be shown to Scott’s family in private, but will be made public only “when there is a compelling reason.”
The secrecy has added to outrage over the killing, which triggered a wave of violent protests in the city that saw looting, vandalism, and prolonged clashes with riot police on Wednesday night. One man was critically wounded in a shooting during the unrest, two police officers were injured, and 44 people were arrested. Police have said Scott had a gun in his hand when he was shot, but some — including Scott’s daughter, who broadcast her emotional reaction to the shooting live on Facebook — claim he was merely holding a book.
Charlotte police have said a gun was recovered from the scene, but when Putney was asked whether the footage that is currently available shows Scott pointing a weapon, he said, “I did not see that in the videos that I reviewed.”
Meanwhile, in Tulsa, where police fatally shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on September 16, authorities have taken the opposite approach. Three days after the shooting, police released two videos that showed how the incident unfolded from different angles.
The footage, recorded by a dash-cam inside a police cruiser and a camera mounted to a police helicopter, shows officers surrounding Crutcher, who had been walking away from his disabled vehicle with his hands raised in the air, using a Taser on him, and then shooting him at close range. Crutcher was unarmed.
In an interview with VICE News on Wednesday, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said his decision was partly influenced by the fact that he’d “seen what happened in other cities” when they decided to withhold footage.
“I think it was important to my community, no matter how bad the footage was, that they needed to see it, see what we saw, immediately,” Jordan said. “I think no matter how disturbing it is, we’re the city’s police department and we have accountability.”
Jordan didn’t mention Charlotte specifically, but after the turmoil in North Carolina on Wednesday night, the comparison was unavoidable.
“I had no choice,” Jordan said of his decision to release the footage. “I think ethically and morally and in every way — I’m not happy with the video, I’m not happy with the incident, but I’m satisfied with my decision.”
The debate over how to handle footage of police shootings has divided lawmakers across the country. Several states, including North Carolina, have enacted laws that restrict public access to the videos. North Carolina’s law, which doesn’t take effect until October 1, will require a court order for law enforcement agencies to make body camera footage public. Other places, such as Seattle, which created an online database of dashcam videos, have started to proactively release footage.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in police behavior and regulation, says “it has become a public expectation” for video footage to be made available whenever something controversial happens with police. He noted that police once had near-absolute control over the narrative following an officer-involved shooting, but the proliferation of cellphone videos recorded by civilians has upended that dynamic.
“Police owned the narrative in pretty much every case like this forever,” Harris said. “If the victim of the shooting was dead, then there was basically usually only one story. If the person survived, they were charged with a boatload of crimes and who are you going to believe? Now, with the pervasiveness of cameras with police and civilians, in certain situations there is a counter narrative. It simply puts certain facts beyond dispute.”
In Tulsa, Jordan seemed to recognize that releasing the video footage — no matter how horrific — was the best way to quell public anger.
“If you hold it and somebody looks at it later, that’s the first question they’re going to have: ‘Did you not release it just because it looks bad?’ And you know, I’ll guarantee you in most cities, if they saw the suspect with a gun in his hand, they’d be putting that out immediately,” Jordan said.
‘If they’re rioting without the videotape, what harm would it have done to release it?’
In Charlotte, however, that hasn’t been the case. Police insist Scott was armed, but they’ve offered no evidence beyond the word of the chief and the officers on the scene to back up their claim.
L. Christopher Stewart, the attorney who represented the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed man shot in the back last year by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, said that the public is now suspicious when law enforcement agencies refuse to release videos.
“It just looks like you’re hiding something when you’d want to be forthright,” Stewart said. He noted that police in Charlotte could simply release a still frame that shows the gun in that incident without jeopardizing their investigation. “You’ve got to let the people see something,” he said. “If they’re rioting without the videotape, what harm would it have done to release it?”
Stewart, who is also representing the family of Alton Sterling, a black man shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, earlier this year, said statements by police in the aftermath of shootings are no longer taken at face value.
“It’s a whole new ballgame, because everything is filmed,” he said. “It’s no longer just the cop’s word against a dead body.”
With the burden of proof now higher than it was in years past, Jordan, the Tulsa police chief, said he felt it was important to be “completely transparent” about what led to Crutcher’s death. In Charlotte, Putney also vowed to be transparent — just not to the same degree.
“I promised transparency, not full transparency,” Putney told reporters on Thursday. “Transparency is in the eye of the beholder.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton