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Charlotte police claim that 43 year-old Keith Lamont Scott was shot to death in the parking lot of an apartment complex on September 20 after brandishing a gun, while neighbours say that he was only holding a book. According to the police, a gun was found next to the dead man – but there was no book.
When Scott’s grieving relatives were eventually shown police footage of the shooting, two days later, they declared seeing no hint of aggression in his behaviour and asked for the recordings to be made public.
On the videos, Scott is seen slowly walking backwards, with his hands by his side, when a police officer opens fire, according to Justin Bamberg, an attorney for the Scott family.
“While police did give him several commands, he did not aggressively approach them or raise his hands at members of law enforcement at any time. It is impossible to discern from the videos what, if anything, Mr. Scott is holding in his hands”, said Bamberg in an emailed statement.
Both the suspect and the officer were black.
‘We want the tape’
The police’s decision not to publicly release the footage has infuriated protesters in Charlotte. The city was rocked by protests for the third consecutive night on Thursday, with hundreds of demonstrators chanting “release the tape” and “we want the tape”.
Charlotte police chief Kerr Putney argued that the footage could not be released right now as it was part of an investigation, adding that it would be released “when there is a compelling reason”. His decision is in line with a North Carolina law passed last July that prevents law enforcement agencies from releasing such footage without a court order.
The controversial law, which is actually due to take effect on October 1, was designed to prevent potential witnesses from changing their testimonies to match police videos. In other cases of fatal police shootings, such as Sylville Smith on August 13 in Wisconsin, authorities deliberately withheld the release of footage before the formal end of the investigation. A premature release would “compromise the integrity of the investigation”, explained Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Despite these concerns, the Scott family’s calls for the public release of the videos have been echoed by several members of Congress, Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts, black leaders from the NAACP, and some leading US media outlets.
Transparency and disclosure
Demands for transparency have only grown louder after the police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, defused a similarly explosive situation by promptly releasing police videos showing an officer shooting an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, after his vehicle broke down on a highway. A white police officer was charged on Thursday with first-degree manslaughter and the city of Tulsa was spared days of rioting.
“Elected officials (…) should understand that keeping the public in the dark heightens tension and undermines trust in law enforcement”, wrote the New York Times in an editorial published on September 22 calling for the release of the Charlotte police videos.
As police departments throughout the United States debate how quickly to release their footage, they are also facing increasing pressure from the prevalance of phone videos taken by witnesses. Although they don’t necessarily show actual shootings, the images spread like wildfire on social media and can fuel public anger.
In the Scott case, a phone video of the deadly encounter, recorded by the victim’s wife, was posted by the New York Times on Friday.
The 2½ minute video shows police repeatedly screaming at Scott to drop his gun as his wife desperately begs them to “not shoot him”. Gunfire erupts and the video ends with a picture of a mortally-wounded Scott lying on the ground.
The emotional video tells a lot about the grief and despair of Scott’s wife but it is recorded from too far away to discern whether the victim was really brandishing a gun. Even if the Charlotte videos don’t shed light on the type of object Scott was carrying, their mere existence has put pressure on police to show more transparency.