Body and dashboard camera video showing police killing an armed teenage suspect in a June 2016 confrontation near University City was released Thursday under the first test of a new state law for making public such material.
Footage matched the narrative given by authorities after the shooting: That Rodney Rodriguez Smith, after wounding a rival aboard a CATS bus, fired at responding officers while fleeing from them, and they fired multiple shots in return.
From different vantage points, the six videos showed the search for a man who’d fired aboard the bus.
From his body camera, Officer Garret Tryon can be seen searching in the dark for a suspect, then pulling in and calling out seven times, “Drop the gun!” A fusillade of shots follow, then Tryon orders the man four more times to drop the gun. Then came four more shots.
Tryon tells another officer at the scene, “He shot at me.”
Release of the video reflected the policy declared by CMPD Chief Kerr Putney in September toward more transparency in conflicts between police and the public.
It also represented a legal milestone in the public’s right to gain access to police video because it was the first time a court approved a petition under North Carolina’s new law requiring judicial approval to release police dashcam and body camera video.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the city of Charlotte did not oppose the request this month for release of the video, brought by WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7) reporter Lisa Worf.
But attorneys for the two officers in the shooting – Michael Bell and Tryon, who were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by prosecutors and are back at work – argued this month in court that the footage should not be released because of the possibility of inflaming the public and inciting someone to seek revenge.
“Another person killed by police – that’s the narrative,” said attorney Jeremy Smith, who represented Tryon. “They could seek retribution. Officers have enough to deal with.”
But Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell ruled Jan. 12 that there was a compelling public interest in demonstrating how the officers handled the circumstances and ordered the tapes to be released.
He said the nation’s attention is focused on the killings of minorities at the hands of police officers. He said he strongly doubted the release of the video posed a threat to the officers’ safety since so much time had passed since the shooting.
Shooting on bus
After an investigation into the shooting, authorities gave this account of what happened:
Police were alerted to a shooting aboard a CATS bus on the night of June 2, 2016. Officers Tryon and Bell arrived in separate cars at the scene on North Tryon Street near University City.
Tryon told investigators he saw Smith walking along the street holding something in his waistband. Tryon said he repeatedly ordered Smith to show his hands.
Smith clutched something from his waistband, Tryon said. Bell, who had just arrived, said he saw Smith holding a handgun. Smith fired at Tryon, police said, and both officers returned fire.
“I got out of the car I went to about the front bumper of my own car and drew my weapon and focused on him,” Bell told investigators. “I took two or three breaths just to gather myself and steady my aim and I remember thinking the whole time, ‘Tryon, if you don’t shoot him you’re gonna die.’ And as I’m getting out of the car I looked at Tryon, Tryon’s pointing at him, yelling at him, ‘Show me your hands.’ ”
Smith ran up an embankment after the officers fired, an investigative report said. He raised his right hand, which Tryon said was still gripping the weapon, and Tryon fired three to four more shots. An image from Bell’s body camera showed Smith pointing what the report said was a gun at Tryon.
Smith was shot five times. District Attorney Andrew Murray concluded that deadly force was justified because the officers were defending themselves.
An image recovered later from a camera on the CATS bus shows a man identified as Smith seated with a handgun. A second image shows him pointing a gun before the passenger, a man with whom Smith had a long-term dispute, was shot from behind.
Though not a party to the court action to release the video, Smith’s grandparents have said they had unresolved questions: Why did police shoot Smith so many times? Was he threatening officers with a gun or was he holding a cellphone or something else? They said wanted to see the video to erase those doubts.
They raised Smith and said he had trouble in school. He suffered from attention deficit disorder and mental illness.
Linda Woodard said she questioned the official account because word had spread that Smith sent his girlfriend a text about the same time as the shooting.
“How could all this be going on if he’s texting his girlfriend?” Woodard asked.
On Oct. 1, a new state law regulating release of police videos went into effect. It called for police to get a court order to release video from dashboard cameras or body cameras and allowed courts to deny such requests for a number of factors, including potential interference to an active investigation or disclosing information that could “harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person.”
Supporters of the law say it balances citizens’ right to know with the interest of police. Opponents say the added restriction undermines transparency and public accountability.
A request from Worf and WFAE for police video in the Smith case was denied by Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson in November because it was before the district attorney’s office resolved whether the shooting was justified. Murray announced Dec. 12, 2016, that a review by his office found the officers had acted in self-defense, and Worf returned to court this month seeking the video.
Unlike the first time she requested the video, CMPD supported its release. Mark Newbold, a CMPD attorney, said there was no longer a need to keep the video sealed from public view since prosecutors had finished reviewing evidence.
Newbold indicated CMPD would be supporting the release of other videos in the future because, he said, the need for transparency trumps other concerns. He said releasing video could dispel rumors and misinformation, which many blame for the protests that roiled the city following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016.
“In keeping with department protocol, we do not oppose the release of video evidence after a case has been thoroughly investigated and adjudicated,” CMPD said in a statement Thursday with the video release. “Our preference is to always allow for a thorough investigation with the intent to have all sides presented.”
Greg Collard, WFAE’s news director, said he hopes the case will encourage other judges to lean toward transparency in future cases.
Collard said the Smith case stood out from other police shootings because officers fired more than 20 shots from different angles. Release of the videos would help the public understand Murray’s decision not to pursue charges against the officers, Collard said.
“Part of our job is to advocate for the public,” he said. “That’s the role of journalism.”
Balance of protection
Sponsoring the new law on release of videos was state Rep. John Faircloth, R-High Point. He said the intent of the law was to protect police videos for evidential reasons in active cases and protect those recorded on the tapes.
Before the law, release of such material was left to the discretion of various law enforcement agencies. Under Faircloth’s measure, anyone recorded in a law enforcement video can ask to see it and, if denied, can appeal to the decision to Superior Court.
As the bill moved through committee in the General Assembly, a provision was added that allowed anyone to seek release of a video if there is a “compelling public interest” in it, which was the argument in the WFAE case.
In a parallel case, Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell on Monday ordered the release of video in another police shooting requested by The Charlotte Observer. It is expected to be made public soon.
Faircloth said there have been few cases under the new law and legislators may look at it during the next session to see whether further tweaks are needed.
Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center based at Elon University, said he is troubled by the law’s provision for “compelling public interest.”
“It’s a very high standard,” Jones said, making it more difficult for the public to gain access to the videos. “If they were looking to make it easier for the public, they would have made the law say that videos are taken in a place where there’s no presumption of privacy.”