Politics & Government

With another police video controversy, city’s transparency takes a hit

Body camera footage continued rolling after the shooting. Officer Wende Kerl’s did not.

Past body camera footage captured scenes after the shooting including police handcuffing shooting victims and giving them aid.
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Past body camera footage captured scenes after the shooting including police handcuffing shooting victims and giving them aid.

For the second time in three years, Charlotte officials have found themselves on the defensive over the release of a video showing a fatal police shooting.

Nearly three years ago, the victim was 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott. The question was the timing of the release of police dashcam and bodycam videos.

This year the person shot was Danquirs Franklin, 27. The question now is why wasn’t an entire 11-minute bodycam video released initially, instead of just a two-minute, 20-second portion.

“By all accounts this has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for transparency and accountability in Charlotte government,” City Council member Braxton Winston said at Monday night’s council meeting.

Over objections from the city, Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell has ordered the entire video from Officer Wende Kerl’s bodycam to be released at 5 p.m. Wednesday. On Tuesday she appeared to criticize the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s decision to turn over just the shorter video clip.

Transparency was a big issue in 2016, when Scott’s shooting led to days of nationally televised civil unrest.

A week after the September shooting, protesters gathered outside a Charlotte City Council meeting and chanted, “Release. Release. The whole damn tape.” Later, in a column for the Observer, then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts said, “the lack of transparency . . . about the timing of the investigation and release of video footage was not acceptable.”

On Tuesday, Assistant City Attorney Jessica Battle told a court that police released the shorter video on April 15 because the original request from a WBTV reporter had asked for footage “in the moments leading up to, during and immediately after the shooting.” She said CMPD attorneys believed that the two minutes and 20 second portion was enough to satisfy the petition.

Democrat Matt Newton, a council member and an attorney, said he believes the reporter was seeking all pertinent video of the shooting. He said lawyers can parse language too closely, losing sight of the big picture.

“These are the games attorneys play,” he said. “They look at the terminology and try to limit the scope of an argument . . . But I feel like the public certainly deserves better and when we know that there is a pre-existing distrust between the community and our police department . . . those games shouldn’t be played.”

‘Learning curve’

City Council members saw the longer version of the video before the shorter one had been made public. City Attorney Patrick Baker watched it with them.

“I’m not sure why I’m being shown something that the general public is not going to see,” he told the Observer last week. “I mean, this is the last thing we wanted. City Council has been very clear that they want to be transparent.”

Several council members said the delay in releasing the full video is a setback to good-faith efforts to be transparent.

“It appears to be a setback to the public,” Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said Wednesday. “So I would hope that we can have conversations in the community to understand that it wasn’t intentional. There wasn’t any malice.”

Eiselt, a Democrat, said there could have been better communication between the police department and city administration. Police Chief Kerr Putney has taken responsibility for deciding to release the shorter video.

“There’s a learning curve here for all of us,” she said. “We didn’t know we were making a mistake but we’ve got to do better next time, it’s a process.”

Losing public trust

Council member Ed Driggs, a Republican, said officials did learn from the 2016 controversy.

“We have been working very hard to be up front with the community and there were things we weren’t aware of,” he said. “I don’t believe there was any intention to avoid accountability.”

Republican member Tariq Bokhari said the city acted quickly after the recent shooting to meet with citizens and try to prevent the kind of unrest that happened in 2016. He said the city should have let a judge decide how much of the video to release.

“In general,” he said, “we’ve come a long way in our practices and our response and our understanding of the community’s frustration and balancing that with the process we’ve had to work with.”

Democrat Dimple Ajmera said the city has to “take more intentional steps to show that we are not withholding information.”

“In this process I feel like we lost public trust and there were questions about transparency, and rightfully so,” she said. “When you’re dealing with situations like this we have to be very careful about not losing public trust.”

Newton said he hopes the recent experience helps.

“We still have a ways to go and I think this can be an instance we can look at and say, ‘Hey, we can be more transparent here.’”