The volatile national debate over police shootings of black suspects arrived full force in Colorado Springs last week, complete with vigils, video, protests, a short confrontation downtown and a fierce debate over what information the police should and shouldn’t give out in such cases.
The Gazette got directly involved in that debate when one of our reporters obtained surveillance video of the scene where De’Von Bailey, 19, was shot and killed.
Before posting that footage, we called El Paso County sheriff’s officials who are conducting the investigation, and told them we had the video and asked them if instead of us publishing it, they might release the body cam video of the shooting that a Colorado Springs police officer had taken. We suggested release of the video would cool temperatures running hot in the city over conflicting information from police and witnesses. The source of the video told us that police had the surveillance video in their possession as well.
After we posted the surveillance video, followed by many other news outlets around the country who obtained the same video, we asked Sheriff Bill Elder and Police Chief Vince Niski in a formal letter to release the body cam video. We argued that the surveillance video shed some light on the incident, but more questions remain.
“As you both are obviously aware,” Managing Editor John Boogert wrote, “The community is watching this case with high interest. This incident occurred during a weekend filled with raw emotions nationally, and in the midst of tragedies in El Paso (Texas) and Dayton (Ohio).”
We believe the immediate release of the police video would not unduly impact your investigation. Instead, it offers the best possible look at what happened: Impartial, true and transparent.”
This time, we got a response. The Sheriff’s Office denied our request, citing the The Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, which gives law enforcement agencies wide discretion about what information and data they release to the public.
“The custodian of the record may deny access to investigative records of the sheriff because disclosure would be “contrary to public interest,” wrote Natalie Sosa, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, quoting a portion of the law.
“There is no public interest that outweighs the integrity of the ongoing investigation,” she concluded.
Clearly, we beg to differ.
The question at the heart of body cam video debate is: What is the “public interest?”
Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition said there is a clear public interest in the Colorado Springs case.
“Journalists requesting these records have to argue why the public interest is served in releasing the footage,” Roberts said.
“The public interest, at least from our perspective, is often pretty obvious. In this case, there’s no question. You have footage from a private party that raises all sorts of questions for the public about how this 19-year-old man died. Releasing the body camera footage as soon as possible would do a lot to help answer those questions.”
Even Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said he supported the release of police body-worn camera video.
“The fact of the matter is little snippets (clips) don’t give the whole picture,” Suthers told a TV station. “I would ask the public to please wait and hear the whole story because I think you’ll get a pretty good picture of everything that happened in this case.”
Unfortunately, police fed that stew of incomplete information by issuing a news release that said the suspect had been shot after reaching for a gun. Why is it OK to say that, but not show it? Did the suspect run? Was the gun visible to police? Did he brandish the gun, or only reach for it? Was he shot in the back or not?
Didn’t police “compromise” their investigation by giving out incomplete information themselves? If they gave out no information, that would be one thing. But they gave out their“little snippets” as well.
Releasing the video would help them complete their information.
By Friday, the city and the Colorado Springs Police Department had decided that, indeed, it was important to release the video, and promised to do so by the end of next week, after the Sheriff’s Office turns over the findings of their investigation to the district attorney. Did the release of the surveillance video help law enforcement make up its mind about the real “public interest?” We hope so.
The impending release is welcome news, and let’s hope it answers the questions that are making our community so jittery right now.
What remains, however, is that the police and Sheriff’s Office still have complete power to decide what truly is “in the interest of the public” in such cases.
That can be fixed, and has been addressed in nearly half of the states in the country.
“Should Colorado’s law be modified to require the release of body camera footage when someone dies during a confrontation with law enforcement?” asks Roberts. “Yes, perhaps after a certain time period.”
The mother of a 19-year-old man who was killed during a confrontation with police last year in Fort Collins has proposed just such a law.
Susan Holmes is trying to find a state lawmaker to champion the Jeremy Holmes Act, which would require the release of footage within five days of a public records request, allowing for some redaction to obscure the faces of witnesses and bystanders. “The disclosure of body camera footage in this type of incident provides oversight where strong public interest outweighs any privacy concerns,” it states.
The bill has languished, but there is plenty of precedent. Twenty other states and the District of Columbia have either passed or proposed bills on public access to body-cam footage, according to the Urban Institute.
California recently passed a law that will require police departments to release audio and video footage of shootings within 45 days.
Such laws are a good step toward putting determination of the public interest back where it belongs — in the hands of the public.