The narrative swirling around the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police in Charlotte, North Carolina last week has raised debates on some challenging issues.
Firstly, what are the benefits and adverse consequences relating to the release of videos of incidents that are the focus of ongoing investigations? Secondly, are police justified to use deadly force against an armed and uncooperative individual that hasn't pointed a firearm at anyone?
Additionally, this tragic situation also highlights the inability of police body-worn cameras (BWCs) at times to capture definitive images of the factors seen and heard by officers while making the decision to take a life. (See Op-Ed: Body-worn cameras helpful, but not infallible)
When an officer uses deadly force, a number of elements must be thoroughly investigated to determine whether it was reasonable to believe there was a threat of death or serious bodily harm to them or another party. If "yes", then only training, equipment and policy issues will be examined. If the answer is "no", investigators must follow the evidence to determine whether the officer intentionally used deadly force; whether he or she didn't mean to kill but certainly should have known the force would likely kill or seriously harm the individual (murder versus manslaughter); or if it was simply carelessness on the part of the officer, as opposed to a tragic error.
In cases where the possibility of racism exists, then they will also be seeking evidence that the officer would not have entered into the situation or used force if the involved individual was of a different race. In the Charlotte tragedy, both the officer and the deceased were black males.
To accomplish all of the above, evidence must be gathered and examined in its totality – including the statements of witnesses. Publicly releasing video footage of the event prior to conducting thorough interviews of witnesses could taint the independent recollection of those witnesses. It doesn't mean that they would intentionally tell mistruths after seeing the video, but it could actually change their memory of what they saw and heard, which wouldn't be fair to the witnesses themselves, the involved officers, or the deceased.
Therefore, police need to be sure they've located and interviewed every possible witness prior to releasing details that might negatively impact their recollection of the events.
In Charlotte, authorities very quickly faced tremendous public backlash, including emotional and violent protests, forcing them to weigh the impacts of releasing the video footage, versus the growing threat to public safety if they did not. Social media commentary inflamed the situation very quickly. The Scott family, community members, political leaders at all levels and the media called for the release of police video, some with the intention of minimizing the volatility.
I don't envy the dilemma the police chief was faced with, but I certainly admire his resolve to do what he felt was right, at the right time and for the right reasons. He's a committed and honest leader who is trying to do his very best for the community he serves and for the people he leads.
The videos released do not clearly show a handgun in the hands of Mr. Scott as police and other independent witnesses claim, but police clearly ordered him 12 times to "drop the gun". His wife is heard telling him (among other things) "Keith don't you do it". Some still photos appear to show something in his hand but the clarity just isn’t there. None of the videos were of effective quality and angles.
His family claims that he was holding something – a book, which was not found. A cocked gun was located near his body and police report that it bore his fingerprints and DNA.
In some clips you can see he's wearing an ankle holster on one leg, while standing and then when laying on the ground. Would someone wear a handgun holster if they didn’t have a gun?
Despite not necessarily pointing what he was holding at the officers, Mr. Scott chose not to drop whatever it was – notwithstanding repeated demands by police, who were aiming their firearms at him as he quickly walked backwards toward them. Should they have waited for him to take the millisecond he would need to point and fire at them? I think not. The average member of the public has no idea how quickly a person can go from simply holding a gun to pointing and discharging one.
Those officers deserved to go home safely to their families at the end of the day and unfortunately Mr. Scott made the decision not to. It's a sad situation no matter how one looks at it. A man his dead, a family is grieving and young police officer has to endure the impacts of an investigation and seeing a community in crisis. He then must forever live with the fact that he took a human life. No good comes out of any of this, but was it wrong, illegal and/or an act of racism?
I think not.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.