Decision to release body cam footage ignites debate; here's why activists say it's important
The decision on Tuesday to publicly release body camera footage from New Castle County Police officers involved in the shooting death of 30-year-old Lymond Moses in January appears to have been made solely by County Executive Matt Meyer.
The move, done against the advice of Police Chief Col. Vaughn Bond Jr., was the first time the county has ever released such a video. In the last year, the state Attorney General's Office has released body camera footage, but only after its investigation into a police shooting is complete.
The police chief said he explained to Meyer that while he did not oppose its release, he was opposed to the timing because the investigation is still ongoing. Bond said he has no problem with body cam footage being released after an investigation ends.
Meyer’s decision put him in hot water with the local police union, which issued a scathing statement Tuesday afternoon.
Advocacy organizations hailed the release of the footage, calling it a good first step toward increased police transparency in Delaware.
“Allowing this information to be out there in the public, for members of the community to be able to see the video, can help to connect dots and answer questions that people have,” said Mike Brickner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.
“I think it’s really important for us as a community to decide whether or not we believe the New Castle County Police were acting appropriately, and help to inform some of our own feelings about the incident.”
In a statement provided with the footage, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer said releasing the video was "in the public interest."
“We have invested a significant amount of your taxpayer dollars into body-worn cameras for all New Castle County Police officers on patrol," Meyer said. "We do so to add transparency, accountability and public trust to complex and sometimes controversial policing decisions."
Jonathan Yard, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 – the union that represents New Castle County Police – denounced the decision, saying that while “transparency and public trust are essential,” releasing the video before the Department of Justice investigation is complete “undermines the credibility of any future legal proceedings that may arise from this incident.”
Jaime Leonard, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, echoed Yard, saying that police officers “know how the release of information while investigating a case can, at times, cause problems to the investigators.”
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“As investigators, we like the slate of evidence to be as clean as possible, and we respect the effort that goes into conducting a complete investigation,” Leonard said. “The release of this video hinders the investigators, both from New Castle County Police and the Department of Justice from conducting a thorough, unbiased investigation.”
He added that the FOP supports the release of the video once the investigation is complete, but that police have “grave concerns” about it potentially impacting the Justice Department’s investigation.
Brickner pushed back Tuesday night, saying the footage can be released and the officers involved “still have all of the protections of due process.”
“In a regular criminal investigation … oftentimes details about a criminal offense come out before the trial has been concluded,” Brickner said. “That's out there in the public, for the public to be able to make determinations about whether they think the person is guilty or innocent.”
Meyer’s office did not elaborate on why he made the decision, instead referring back to his initial statement when the footage was released.
The Delaware Department of Justice, which is investigating the shooting, said it respected Meyer's decision to release the footage despite it deviating from the DOJ's policy to not release video until an investigation is complete.
"We will work to ensure this public release of evidence will not impact the integrity of the Division of Civil Rights & Public Trust’s investigation," said Mat Marshall, a spokesman for the department.
A new beginning?
Delaware’s restrictive policies on transparency have long been criticized by those who support criminal justice and police reform.
In addition to body camera footage not normally being released, the protections in the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, a set of statutes that keep complaints against police and internal investigations secret, sharply restrict public access to records of police discipline.
Delaware’s policies are much more restrictive than other states, especially when it comes to releasing video.
In nearby Philadelphia, police in October released a detailed video of 911 calls and footage from body cameras of officers who fatally shot 27-year-old Walter Wallace. That video release came just nine days after the shooting.
And when Columbus, Ohio, police officer Adam Coy shot unarmed 47-year-old Andre Hill on Dec. 22, body camera footage was made public before New Year’s Day. Last month, Coy was arrested and charged with murder.
“The community should have access to the videos almost as soon as the police,” Wilmington activist Mahkieb Booker told Delaware Online/The News Journal in February.
The footage being made available soon after a police shooting, the ACLU's Brickner said, “helps to build confidence and trust between the government and law enforcement agencies and the community.”
It’s beneficial, too, for police departments, Brickner said.
“Oftentimes, when body-worn camera footage or other evidence is held up for weeks or months after an incident happens, it actually allows for the incident to fester,” Brickner said.
This happened in the case of Brandon Roberts, whom Milford police fatally shot on Jan. 5, 2020. For weeks after the incident, the story told by Roberts’ fiancée, Erica Jones, and lawyer Thomas Neuberger differed from statements released by Delaware State Police.
As an officer pushed open the couple's apartment door, Roberts lunged toward him "while brandishing a large knife,” police said after the incident. Two officers then shot Roberts, killing him.
At the time, Neuberger and Jones disputed the official story, saying Roberts did not lunge at officers.
The body camera footage sat in the hands of the Milford Police Department, Delaware State Police and the Department of Justice for months while investigators looked into the shooting. Meanwhile, speculation swirled and there was at least one protest in response.
Video of the shooting incident wasn't seen publicly for more than seven months, when the Delaware Department of Justice released its final use-of-force report on Aug. 19. It showed Roberts exit the apartment with a knife in his hand, ignoring multiple requests to show his hands, before being shot multiple times.
While it will likely be months before the Moses case is adjudicated, use-of-force expert Ken Cooper said Tuesday that the video released by the county shows officers acting appropriately, from their de-escalation tactics down to firing their weapons.
Cooper, director of Tactical Handgun Training of New York, a facility that trains public safety and security officers, said the footage shows officers smartly turning off Moses’ car, which was running and in gear when police found the man asleep behind the wheel.
The officers, Cooper said, do not show Moses any aggression when they wake him. Moses, he said, became the escalator when he drove the vehicle away.
“Non-compliance is a use-of-force against an officer,” Cooper said.
The Delaware Department of Justice will ultimately make a determination about whether the officers’ use of force was justified. Brickner said he hopes this kind of body cam video release will become the norm.
“I think what's important about this is that the body-worn camera evidence is really neutral on its face,” Brickner said. “The video footage could actually show that the officer acted totally appropriately … That is why it's so important to release it and to be able to release it quickly after an incident like that happens, so that the public can make those determinations and those things don't fester.”
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