Butterfield: Release body camera video in fatal police shooting
Steve Helber | AP photo
Protesters march along the streets Wednesday to protest deputies' fatal shooting of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City. A judge has denied requests to release body camera video in the case.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield is echoing state officials’ call to release body camera footage that shows sheriff’s deputies shooting and killing a Black man in Elizabeth City.
Butterfield, D-Wilson, said Superior Court Judge Jeffery Foster was wrong to deny a coalition of media outlets’ petition to release the video. Foster refused to make the recording publicly available on Wednesday, but he did order authorities to allow Andrew Brown’s family to privately view five videos from body cameras and one from a dashboard camera within 10 days, with some portions blurred or redacted.
Family members had previously been allowed to view only a 20-second clip from a single body camera.
“I’m disappointed that Judge Jeff Foster declined to immediately release the video footage of the police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr.,” Butterfield said in a Wednesday afternoon statement released by his congressional office. “This footage is a public record and there does not appear to be legal justification for withholding it from the public.”
State legislators voted in 2016 to exempt body camera and dashboard camera video from the N.C. Public Records Act. The footage was previously considered public record. Current law allows people to petition a Superior Court judge to order a video’s release.
Pasquotank County deputies shot Brown on April 21 while serving drug-related search and arrest warrants at his Elizabeth City home. On Tuesday, Brown’s family released an independent autopsy showing he was shot five times, including in the back of the head. The state’s autopsy has not been released yet.
“Police shootings in America are now an epidemic,” Butterfield said. “The public is losing confidence in our law enforcement and criminal justice system. That’s why Gov. (Roy) Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein and the Pasquotank County sheriff have all called for immediate release of the video footage. Further, the State Bureau of Investigation does not object to its release.”
During court proceedings, Foster said he believed the videos contained information that could harm the ongoing investigation or threaten the safety of people seen in the footage. He said the video must remain out of public view for at least 30 days, but he would consider releasing it after that point if investigations are complete.
“The release at this time would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice,” Foster said.
Butterfield, who served as a Superior Court judge and N.C. Supreme Court justice before his election to Congress, said Foster erred in his ruling on the petition.
“I call on Judge Foster to reconsider his decision to withhold this important information from the public,” Butterfield said. “Withholding the video from public inspection while the investigation is ongoing only leads to suspicion and further erosion of the public’s confidence in our justice system.”
The decision came shortly after a prosecutor said Brown had struck law enforcement officers with his car before they opened fire.
District Attorney Andrew Womble, who viewed the body camera videos, told the judge that he disagreed with a characterization by an attorney for Brown’s family that Brown did not try to drive away until deputies opened fire. Womble said the video shows that Brown’s car made “contact” with law enforcement twice before shots could be heard on the video.
“As it backs up, it does make contact with law enforcement officers,” Womble said, adding that the car stops again. “The next movement of the car is forward. It is in the direction of law enforcement and makes contact with law enforcement. It is then and only then that you hear shots.”
Womble said officers shouted commands and tried to open a car door before any shots were fired.
None of the deputies were injured, according to previous statements by the Pasquotank County sheriff, Tommy Wooten II.
Womble argued that video of the shooting should be kept from the public while state investigators pursue their probe. He said the video should not be released until a trial in the shooting or, alternatively, if a completed investigation results in no charges.
Brown’s killing brought renewed scrutiny to North Carolina’s 2016 body camera law, with some legislators seeking increased transparency. State Reps. James Gailliard, D-Nash, and Linda Cooper-Suggs, D-Wilson, cosponsored House Bill 698, which would subject police video to public disclosure 48 hours after footage is recorded.
“This is not a blue lives vs. Black lives (matter) conversation,” Gailliard said in a news release. “Accountability and transparency is good for everybody. Any areas in our systems that lack accountability is an area already out of control.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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