Following intense criticism and calls for his resignation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Wednesday that his department would reverse course and be more open about releasing videos of police shootings to victims’ families and the public.
The department will still have broad discretion on whether to release video and decisions on when to make it open to the public will be handled on a case-by-case basis, Putney said.
He did not elaborate on the criteria that would be used to determine when footage would be released.
“It is a new day,” Putney said. “There is an opportunity to move a bit and to give the public what it wants.”
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His comments come after the Observer began looking into the department’s refusal to turn over video following officer shootings.
In the days after the Sept. 20 fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, Mayor Jennifer Roberts assured the public that CMPD releases video recordings after an investigation is closed.
But until relenting to local and national pressure, CMPD had never released footage from dashcams and body cameras involving a shooting.
Over the weekend, the department released about two minutes of video footage captured by a dashboard camera and a body camera showing the moments immediately before and after the Scott shooting.
Still, CMPD refused to release two hours of footage that cameras captured at the University City apartment complex where the shooting occurred. A group of news organizations, including the Observer, have formally requested more police video from the shooting scene as well as any surveillance camera footage.
Law enforcement experts and activists said CMPD’s initial refusal to release the recordings fueled violent protests that roiled the city following Scott’s death. Street demonstrators chanted “Release the tapes!” during protests outside CMPD headquarters and in marches.
“Charlotte is now a model for how not to handle (videos),” said Kenneth Williams, an expert on police misconduct and professor at the Houston College of Law.
Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, called CMPD’s new stance an encouraging sign. But it also comes too late, she said.
Birdsong noted a new state law, HB 972, that goes into effect Saturday will prevent police agencies from releasing body camera footage to the public without a court order.
Putney said CMPD would take advantage of an exemption in the law that allows law enforcement discretion to show footage with the aggrieved person or their family.
In some cases, Putney said he will seek permission from the courts to release videos to the public.
On Wednesday, Roberts called for a special legislative session to repeal the law that makes it harder for the public to see police videos.
It’s unlikely that Republican legislative leaders would act on her request to repeal a bill that passed last summer with strong bipartisan support.
Public access denied
In response to recent high-profile police shootings around the country, body cameras have been endorsed by the Obama administration, civil rights activists, and the family of Michael Brown, the teenager killed two years ago by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
CMPD is in the process of equipping officers with 1,400 lipstick-sized, body cameras. The City Council agreed last year to spend $7 million for the devices.
The city began using dashcams in the 1990s after allegations officers used excessive force against African-Americans.
But CMPD has blocked public access to videos that were supposed to help ensure transparency and accountability.
In May 2015, the department denied a public records request from the Observer for dashcam videos dating back to 2005.
An attorney for CMPD says the agency isn’t required to release the recordings under North Carolina public records law and has chosen to keep the information from public view.
Department leaders have said they want to protect officers’ private personnel information and prevent public disclosures from interfering with criminal investigations. Even when investigations were complete, however, CMPD did not release footage.
That contrasts with cities such as Chicago and Las Vegas, where police are required to release recordings of shootings.
The North Carolina public records law provides broad exceptions to police agencies, who often make it a practice to withhold all but the most basic information, said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.
“These kinds of policies that are common across the state have no real justification,” Jones said. “It contributes to the kind of tension that boiled over in Charlotte.”
On Wednesday, two Charlotte City Council members said they want to review whether new transparency rules are needed, given the widespread distrust of law enforcement and potential for more unrest.
“The more you hide, the less people trust you,” councilwoman Claire Fallon said. “We have to sit down and talk about this. Do you think anyone trusts the government anymore?”
Councilman Ed Driggs said he doesn’t believe CMPD has withheld information to cover up wrongdoing, but the recent protests demand that leaders re-examine the current policy.
“We have to ask ourselves is there a way we can make more information available quicker,” Driggs said.
Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027, @FrederickClasen