There were two high-profile police shootings in the past week — and police’s responses to them could not have been more different.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a police officer shot and killed Terence Crutcher, an unarmed 40-year-old black man. Shortly after the shooting, police released all available video that they had — promising to get to the bottom of what happened in an investigation.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man police claim was armed and brandishing a gun. There is video — police have said that the officer who fired the fatal shot didn’t have a body camera, but other officers on the scene did, and there may be dashboard camera footage. But police said they won’t release the video, as it’s currently under review and part of an ongoing investigation.
It’s a startling difference in transparency and accountability: Police in Tulsa quickly released all the video they had, while police in Charlotte may not ever (willingly) put out video.
One reason for the difference: North Carolina law. Earlier in July, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed a controversial measure that prevents law enforcement agencies from releasing video footage without a court order. The law doesn’t take effect until October, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney cited the law in his defense for not releasing the video.
The law, McCrory previously argued, is needed to preserve public safety and the integrity of investigations. One major concern for law enforcement is that released video footage could let witnesses verify and change their testimonies to match what’s on video, making it more difficult to discern who’s a trustworthy eyewitness and who isn’t.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel put this argument best after the police shooting of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee: Releasing video prior to an investigation’s completion "would compromise the integrity of the investigation," he said. "It is sometimes necessary to confront witnesses with information they didn’t know or they didn’t know we know. I cannot have witness statements colored or tainted by what they are seeing from other sources."
But the North Carolina law also shows the limits of body cameras for holding police accountable: As promising as the devices may seem, how much of an impact they have largely depends on who controls the footage.
The big question with body cameras: Who controls the footage?
Over the past several years, there has been a concerted effort to equip police officers and their cars with cameras. The idea is simple: A recording will provide the public with a full, unbiased account of what happened, making it easier to hold police accountable for wrongdoing.
The move is already having an effect. For one, videos appear to be a key reason that the public is now less likely to trust police. Black and brown communities have been complaining about police misconduct for generations, but it’s only recently that those complaints have been taken seriously by the broader public — in large part because video is more easily available.
"Before you had complaints, police stories, and witnesses' stories," Athena Mutua, a civil rights scholar at SUNY Buffalo Law School, previously told me. But video, paired with its spread on social media, "was important in getting protesters taken seriously."
Video footage has also already repeatedly proven its worth in several specific police shooting cases.
In North Charleston, South Carolina, a video caught the police officer who shot Walter Scott in 2014 planting a Taser by Scott’s body — presumably to show Scott had tried to take and use the stungun on the officer. In Cincinnati, the body camera footage proved the officer who shot and killed Samuel DuBose was lying when he said that DuBose almost ran over the officer with his car — in reality the car barely moved at all. In Chicago, the video showed Laquan McDonald was far away from and posed no threat to the cop who shot him, even though officers on the scene at first said McDonald was a threat.
The list could go on. But there is a consistent theme: Law enforcement give a skewed or false account of what happened, suggesting that officers’ lives were in danger, only for video to show that there was in fact no danger at all.
Crucially, in all three cases, the video pushed prosecutors in their respective districts to file charges. Before, prosecutors may have gone with a police officer’s side of the story — prosecutors tend to build close relationships with cops to solve criminal cases, after all. But now, they have to confront the reality video presents to them.
But these videos only came out because law enforcement either willingly released them or were forced to. In the McDonald case in particular, the video’s release was delayed for more than a year — coming out only after a hard-fought legal battle by activists and journalists demanding the video be made public. Just imagine if the courts hadn’t ruled in favor of these activists and journalists: We’d still be stuck with the police story that we now know is false.
The same concern applies to Scott’s death. Police claim he brandished a gun. Activists say he did not, and was reading a book in his car when he was shot and killed. Video could settle this debate. It might even come on the side of the police force. But none of us can know until police release the video for themselves or a court forces police to.
So the criminal justice system — the system that is under scrutiny here, due to vast racial disparities in police use of force — is entirely in control of setting the narrative. The system that the public is trying to hold accountable gets to set the terms of that accountability.
Imagine how this would work in a different scenario: You run a store. You pay your employees. One of your employees is accused of attacking customers. Yet when you go to investigate these accusations, you can’t access the video — from the cameras you, the boss, paid for — that would prove the accusations one way or another. Instead, your employees have full control of the video and refuse to show it to you.
The public is the police’s boss. The public pays for the cameras through taxes. Yet the public can’t get the footage it essentially pays for.
There are valid concerns about harming the integrity of an investigation, as Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel stated after the police shooting of Sylville Smith.
But at the end of the day, the lack of public video for the Scott shooting shows the limits of body cameras: If the people under scrutiny get to keep the footage from the public, the public won’t be able to do the one thing it sought the footage for in the first place.