COLUMBIA, S.C. – The calls continue to grow louder for Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police to release their video of the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, but Police Chief Kerr Putney is refusing, saying it would jeopardize the investigation. If the shooting had been in South Carolina, the state’s body cam law would not let the public see the video either.
Chief Putney says his department has video from at least one body camera and one dashboard camera of the shooting. Scott’s wife shot cell phone video of the incident, but it doesn’t show whether Scott had a gun. Police say he did and refused to drop it, while witnesses say he was holding a book and didn’t have a gun.
Jay Bender, a media attorney in South Carolina and expert on the Freedom of Information Act, says he thinks Charlotte police are making a mistake by not releasing the video. “The police will always release video when it shows the police doing something good. So that means if the police don’t release a video, it’s because it implicates the police in illegal or unethical conduct,” he says.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed the state’s body cam law in June 2015. State lawmakers passed it after Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by a North Charleston Police officer. That officer, Michael Slager, said that Scott had wrestled away his Taser so he feared for his life. But a bystander’s cell phone video showed Scott running away from Slager when he was shot.
But South Carolina’s new law does not make police body camera video available to the public. The law says it’s not a public record that’s available under the Freedom of Information Act. “Now there’s a list of people who have access to it, but it’s not the general public, in whose name the police operate,” Bender says.
The person who’s the subject of the recording can see the video, and so can a criminal defendant if the video is relevant to a pending criminal matter or someone filing a civil lawsuit if the video is relevant to that. Parents and guardians of a minor or someone who’s incapacitated can also see the video if they’re the subject of it or involved, and so can attorneys involved in those cases.
The law does allow the State Law Enforcement Division, the Attorney General, or a circuit solicitor to release body camera video at their discretion. But Bender says, “It’s going to happen when the cops are shown doing something good. It’s not going to happen, or at least it’ll always seem to me to be the case, that you will never voluntarily have a release by a law enforcement agency of police acting badly.”
Dashboard camera video is not part of the body camera law. Bender says dashcam video is subject to being released under the Freedom of Information Act, but police departments often don’t do it without being forced to by a judge.