Charlotte leaders’ awful blunder on Keith Scott videos

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, right, and Mayor Jennifer Roberts, address reporters.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, right, and Mayor Jennifer Roberts, address reporters. AP

Charlotte’s mayor, City Council and police chief have made a critical blunder in not releasing the police body camera and dash camera videos showing the circumstances of Keith Lamont Scott’s death.

Despite withering criticism, they refuse to reverse course. On Friday, the same day a New York Times editorial accused them of “stonewalling” the public and called Mayor Jennifer Roberts “depressingly out of touch” on questions of transparency, the mayor and the chief said the decision on releasing the videos is now out of their hands.

The State Bureau of Investigation, which is running the investigation, must decide, Chief Kerr Putney told reporters Friday.

Not so fast.

Late Friday evening, the SBI told the editorial board in an email that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police remains the original custodian of the video, “and as such has the legal authority to release it. It is understood discussions are actively underway between local officials regarding the release of that video.”

It was unclear why Roberts and Putney seemed so certain earlier in the day that the call was the SBI’s to make.

But it is even clearer now that the city’s political leaders, to whom the city police ultimately report, do have discretion under North Carolina law to release the videos, as officials in Tulsa, Okla., have been applauded for doing in the Terence Crutcher case.

As we learned from the Randall Kerrick mistrial last year, a police video won’t necessarily provide definitive proof of whether an officer’s shooting is justifiable. But, as we have also learned from the nationally televised chaos in Charlotte’s streets this week, people no longer take police at their word when it comes to justifying lethal force against black men in questionable circumstances.

The city’s stance against releasing the videos was clearly undercut when Scott’s family on Friday afternoon took the transparency question into their own hands by releasing their own cellphone video.

Shot by Scott’s widow, Rakeyia Scott, it doesn’t show Scott at the moment gunfire erupts. But it shows she told police that he’d had a traumatic brain injury, had just taken his medication and wasn’t a danger to them.

That didn’t play well for police in the court of public opinion. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., suggested on CNN Friday that it was unconscionable that officers failed to heed Rakeyia Scott’s admonitions before shooting her husband.

Perhaps more troubling, her video’s depiction of the aftermath does not seem to show a gun lying where a heavily publicized still photo of the crime scene showed one lying.

It all makes release of the police videos even more critical to restoring public trust in Charlotte’s police department.

The fact that Scott’s wife recorded her husband’s encounter with officers speaks volumes about how deep that mistrust runs.

That should sadden us all.

The police department has much work ahead to rebuild trust with the community.

It starts with seeing to it that those videos get released.