Fayetteville cops refused Thursday to release a video from a patrol car’s dashboard camera that reportedly captures a police officer shooting a man three times in the back as he fled from a routine traffic stop in May 2013.
The man, 20-year-old Lawrence Graham III of Fayetteville, was charged the next week with assault on a law enforcement officer. A warrant said Graham pointed a gun at an officer.
Graham died two months after the shooting from a blood clot. The shooting had left him paralyzed.
Allen Rogers, the lawyer for Graham’s family, said the dash-cam video has similarities to a cell phone video that surfaced after a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, shot and killed Walter Scott on Saturday while Scott was running away from him.
That video appears to show the officer, identified as 33-year-old Michael T. Slager, firing repeatedly from a distance as Scott’s back was turned toward him.
Scott was a 50-year-old black man and a father of four. Slager has been charged with murder.
According to published reports, the man who made the video, Feidin Santana, said he shared it with Scott’s family because a police report did not mesh with what he saw. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division released a dash-cam video of the shooting Thursday.
In the Fayetteville case, District Attorney Billy West announced in December 2013 that police Officer Denton Little acted in a “lawful and measured response” when he shot Graham.
Following the investigation, Rogers said, West allowed him to view the dash-cam video but would not allow him to have a copy.
Rogers said the video showed Little standing over the passenger side of the vehicle that Graham had been riding in. Police had stopped the vehicle because its windows were darkly tinted.
Allen said police can be heard checking on Graham’s criminal history and then saying he is not a threat. Graham’s only prior offense was a misdemeanor for marijuana possession, Allen said.
Out of the camera’s view, Allen said, it sounded as if the car’s driver had tried to resist arrest. About the same time, he said, Graham slipped across the seat and bolted through the open driver’s side door.
Allen said the video’s quality was grainy, but it appeared that Graham had something in his hand, possibly a gun, as he ran away. He said Graham never turned back toward the officer.
“The video in no way reflects any threat that was posed toward that officer or anyone else that warranted shooting him in the back three times,” Allen said.
He said a gun was found in a yard 33 feet from where Graham had fallen after being shot. Like in the North Charleston case, police handcuffed Graham after he was shot, Allen said.
West, the district attorney, stands by his statement that the shooting was justified.
“While the incident was undeniably a tragedy for everyone involved, the independent SBI investigation conclusively determined that the officer acted consistently with his training and experience,” West wrote in an email Thursday. “The senior staff at the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office concurred in this decision.”
West said he returned the video to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Fayetteville police spokesman Todd Joyce declined to release a copy of the video because it is not public under North Carolina’s public records laws, and because the case is involved in pending litigation.
“We don’t just show the video that is part of an investigation,” Joyce said.
But the Police Department did exactly that in a separate case in 2012 involving a traffic stop of then Cumberland County Commissioner Charles Evans.
The next day, Evans filed a harassment complaint against the Police Department, and the Police Department responded by posting video and audio recordings of the stop on its YouTube page. Police involved in the stop were cleared of any wrongdoing that day.
The Observer asked Joyce if police Chief Harold Medlock would discuss his reasons for not releasing the video involving Graham. Joyce instead referred questions to City Attorney Karen McDonald because of the pending litigation. Rogers said he expects to file a civil wrongful death lawsuit within 30 days.
The lawyer for the State Bureau of Investigation also declined to release the video, saying it was part of an investigation and not public.
Amanda Martin, the lawyer for the N.C. Press Association, said state law remains unclear on whether a police dash-cam video is a public record.
The law says circumstances surrounding an arrest are public. Martin argues that video from a dashboard camera is a clear way to show those circumstances.
“Certainly,” Martin said, “a video recording is the surest way for the public to have an accurate understanding of what took place in any given circumstance. And if the situation in North Charleston teaches us anything, it is that video recordings can be a check on statements made by any individual who is involved in a confrontation.”
Judges have found themselves on both sides of the debate. Two years ago in Wilmington, a Superior Court judge ordered the release of a dash-cam video that showed a police officer releasing his patrol dog on a suspect following a police chase. The dog went through the man’s open car window and mauled him.
In October, a New Jersey judge ruled that dash-cam videos are public record. A year earlier, the Oklahoma Supreme Court let stand a civil appellate ruling that dash-cam video made by Claremore police are public.
But last year, an Ohio court ruled that videos of lawmen chasing or arresting people are confidential law-enforcement investigatory records shielded from release under Ohio’s public record laws.
In North Carolina, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Elmer Floyd of Fayetteville would leave the release of video from police body cameras and dashboard cameras to the discretion of individual law enforcement agencies. The primary purpose of the pending legislation is to require most law enforcement officers in the state to wear body cameras.
Chris Brooke, legal director of ACLU North Carolina, said state law needs to make clear whether the police videos are public.
“We need laws supporting transparency and making plain that police interactions with the public need to be released,” Brooke said. “I think we have seen from Staten Island and North Charleston how important the public having access to these videos is and how illuminating it can be in regards to police practices.”