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Why Judge Denied WFAE Request for Police Video; CMPD Signals Shift In Approach

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WFAE

A thumb drive with CMPD video of a deadly officer-involved shooting from June sits under seal in the Mecklenburg County courthouse. A judge ruled last week that under a new law, WFAE failed to show a "compelling public interest" to release it. But the decision wasn't an all-out shutdown and CMPD now says going forward it may be the one to push for release of body and dash cam videos. 

WFAE's Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry.

MT: Lisa, first, remind us, why Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson denied your request?

LW: The new law sets this standard for a judge to release police video: that doing so is "necessary to advance a compelling public interest." That's a high bar and the judge said I failed to make that case. Rather, that my argument was general. He acknowledged there can be, as he called it, an "elevated interest" in transparency when police use deadly force. But because the district attorney hasn't come to a conclusion on the case yet, he said the public interest factor doesn't weigh heavily in favor of releasing the video. And he agreed with the DA and police officers' attorneys that releasing the video would "create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice."  

MT: So does that mean the court may be open to releasing this video, once the district attorney's office is through with the case?  

LW: Yes, I think that's a possibility, at least with judge Levinson. The Mecklenburg County DA's Office says they wouldn't argue against cases like this, just point out to the judge the case is no longer pending. Of course in this instance, you'd still have to go through the whole process of filing another petition, serving it, and having another hearing. 

MT: And, remind us, what was the video you were asking for?

LW: It involves a man who shot someone in the foot on a CATS bus in June. Officers Michael Bell and Garret Tryon saw Rodney Rodriguez Smith walking beside N. Tryon. They got out of their cars, saw he had a handgun. CMPD says Smith fired at least one shot and the officers fired multiple shots. Smith died shortly afterward. The officers are now back on the beat.

MT: So why is CMPD now saying it's going to push for the release of police video?

LW: CMPD Attorney Mark Newbold suggested in his arguments last week that might be the case. Though he also urged the judge to listen to the DA and the attorneys representing the police officers.  I spoke to him about the order this week and he surprised me:

NEWBOLD: We felt the elevated interest itself would have been the compelling interest that could have made the court decide to release that footage.

LW: In other words, because police officers used deadly force, that was reason enough to release the video. Then he said this:

NEWBOLD: Each case is different, but I think as CMPD moves forward we're going to have an eye toward releasing significant events sooner rather than later. And we do recognize that other interests exist, but we will be making our decision to petition not based on another agency's opinion, but based on what CMPD feels is best for both the department and the community.

MT: So let's break that down a bit.

LW: Sure.

MT: First, what does CMPD consider a significant event?

LW: Newbold said they certainly include officer-involved shootings, but it could also be general uses of force and things like pursuits.

MT: And what kind of timeframe does he have in mind?

LW: I couldn't get him to be specific. He says it would be a case-by-case basis, but that CMPD may push for release even if the case is still pending with the DA's office. So that means, you could have CMPD and the DA's office opposing each other. 

MT: CMPD has not been quick to make police video public in the past. So why this new position?

LW: The department released the video of Keith Scott's shooting after a lot of public pressure to do so. And that was before this law went into effect and CMPD still had the power to do that. But, yes, CMPD, like many police departments throughout the state, has treated body and dash cam video as evidence, and part of a criminal investigation. Newbold says this new law frees CMPD up a bit. They don't have to worry about weighing whether releasing video would interfere with the DA's duties. The two agencies can make their own arguments in front of a judge and leave the decision to the court.    

MT: There was one argument the judge shot down pretty thoroughly, right?

LW: Yes, it was one made by the lawyer representing Officer Garrett Tryon who was in the video we requested. He argued the video is of a "highly sensitive personal nature." That's one of the factors the law says the judge must weigh. Judge Levinson agreed that a video showing someone's death falls into that category, but said he didn't weigh that heavily in his evaluation. 

MT: Now the judge did bring up Smith's family. Again Smith is the man police officers killed. He noted that neither they, nor other media outlets joined the petition. Do we know how the family feels about the release of this video?

LW:  I spoke with Smith's grandmother, Linda Woodard, yesterday. Smith was 18 when he died and she raised him. She hasn't seen the video, though she's allowed to under the new law. The DA's office did show her still photographs from that night. Woodard says she still has questions and would like to see the video publicly released. We'll hear more from her later today on All Things Considered. 

Here are the other stories in this series on requesting police video under the new law:

So What Does It Take To Get Police Shooting Video Under New Law? We're Trying To Find Out, Part 1

WFAE Goest To Court To Argue For The Release Of Police Shooting Video, Part 2

Judge Denies WFAE Journalist's Petition For Police Shooting Video, Part 3