- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2016

The increased use of body cameras was one of the top recommendations made by President Obama’s task force on policing, meant to improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

But as more agencies use the technology, another divide has emerged. Communities demand immediate access to videos that capture high-profile incidents, including police shootings, but law enforcement officials fear a hasty release could compromise investigations.

As a compromise, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department plans to show videos recorded on officers’ cameras at the scene of a police shooting to the family of the man killed, 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, but does not intend to release the footage publicly. The black officer who shot Mr. Scott, Brentley Vinson, was not wearing a body camera.

As city officials prepared Thursday for what they feared would be a third night of violent protests, some community members said the video’s release could go a long way toward building trust.

“Until the video is released, the community is going to distrust the official story being told by police,” Steve Knight, minister of the Missiongathering Christian Church in Charlotte, told CNN.

But the demands for transparency and accountability leave police in a difficult situation, police policy analysts say.

“Police departments are damned if they do and damned if they don’t release officer-involved shooting videos,” said John Worrall, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“People will be upset if a shooting video isn’t made public. They will be upset if a released video clearly depicts a questionable shooting. Some will still be upset if a video portrays what appears to be a justifiable shooting simply because they don’t like the police,” he said.

It’s unclear whether videos from the scene of Tuesday’s fatal shooting would provide a definitive account of what happened in the moments before Mr. Scott was killed.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Thursday that the recording he has reviewed “does not give me absolute, definitive visual evidence” that Mr. Scott pointed a gun at officers. But he said it also does not appear to contradict the version of events that officers described.

Neighbors and a relative said Mr. Scott was reading a book in his car while he waited for his son at a school bus stop, but police reported that he had a gun that he refused to drop when ordered repeatedly by officers. Police said a gun was recovered at the scene, but lawyer Justin Bamberg, who is representing the Scott family, said Mr. Scott did not own a gun.

Body cameras have become go-to technology for police departments hoping to improve trust and community relations in the two years since riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. But policies about whether and when police departments release body camera videos vary widely.

Policing analysts say public expectations for absolute answers seem too high.

“Videos are rarely dispositive. They rarely tell you everything you need to know, so it becomes another part of the rush to judgment,” said David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We need to step back from this notion that the video is the holy grail of the investigation.”

Mr. Klinger said the Charlotte police chief is right to hold on to the footage while the case is under investigation.

If video is released before police are finished questioning witnesses, it can contaminate statements they give to investigators, said Mr. Klinger, who also supports policies that prohibit officers from reviewing their own body camera footage before providing statements.

If officers are prosecuted for their actions, premature release of camera footage also could run the risk of violating their right to due process, he said.

“This is largely fresh ground, and we haven’t figured out as a society what the rules should be,” he said. “There is unacceptable demand on the part of certain segments of the public for all information right now.”

Chief Putney said he also is wary of the effect that the video could have on Mr. Scott’s loved ones.

“If you think I’m saying we should display a victim’s worst day for public consumption, that is not the transparency I’m speaking of,” he said.

Mr. Scott’s family was shown the video Thursday evening. It was not clear whether they would discuss the video or advocate for its release to the public.

Mr. Bamberg asked that protesters calling for the release of the video be sensitive to the wishes of the family.

“We have to be mindful of the feelings of the loved ones of the people who have died before we rally to say, ‘Make the video public,’” he said.

The Justice Department, which is monitoring the events in Charlotte but has not opened any formal investigation into the Scott shooting, declined to weigh in on the police chief’s decision.

“I will not give specific guidance to the police department now since we are monitoring the situation,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “But in situations where information is released, even when that information is painful to watch or difficult to see, certainly from a personal perspective, the act of providing greater transparency is more helpful than not.”

As questions linger, law enforcement in Charlotte was gearing up for a third night of protests. Businesses were damaged and looted after peaceful rallies Tuesday and Wednesday nights turned violent. State troopers and the National Guard have been brought in to assist local police.

Authorities said 44 people were arrested during Wednesday night’s riots.

One man remained in critical condition after he was shot during a Wednesday night protest, though police say they did not fire on him.

The White House said protesters are raising legitimate concerns about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

But Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said violence and looting “only serves to distract from the issues that should be the subject of careful public scrutiny.”

“The president also hopes that the rights of peaceful protesters will be protected,” he said. “But he also believes that it should be made clear that the protests must remain peaceful, and they should not be used as an excuse to engage in vandalism or violence.”

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