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Release that law-enforcement footage

Transparency is everything, especially when the public is paying for it, and it’s essential that transparency keep up with technological advances. Cheers to the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper for standing tall for our First Amendment rights by acting on a leaked video clip and pushing their city council to realize that releasing police body-cam footage of a controversial incident is practical and right. I hope that municipal governments and judges from Manteo to Murphy will take note.

It’s important to recognize that this latest case, a beating one, took place in the liberal city of Asheville, a town I call “Chapel Hill in the Sky.” None of our Tarheel burgs, or ones nationwide for that matter, are immune to some officers going astray. This transparency issue, which affects us all, should be nonpartisan.

I cut my journalistic teeth covering police and deputies, including some fine ones I am proud to count as longtime friends. Most officers I’ve known are good women and men who do a hard and dangerous job for modest pay.

But they’re only human. Questions arise about their confrontations with civilians that demand answers. Yet such questions often result in he-said, she-said non-endings that leave many wondering what really happened in controversial incidents that roil communities. The advent of cameras that many law-enforcement officers wear on their uniforms and have on their dashboards started to answer many of those questions.

Then, a few years ago, just as that technology was taking off, the state legislature came in with wrongheaded legislation that mandated that, except for certain parties involved in an incident, it takes a judicial order to release law-enforcement video footage, which should be public record. Those orders are difficult and time-consuming, when not impossible, to secure. Newspapers around our state, working within their limited financial means, fight in court for release of such footage on behalf of the rest of the public that pays for the officers who produce it, as well as for the technology itself.

The release of such footage is rarely, if ever, prompt. Meanwhile, rumors spread throughout communities. In some cases, officers who acted correctly have had to wait months to be cleared in the public arena. In a few other cases, officers who apparently acted incorrectly go on working.

The latter may have happened in the Asheville case. The Citizen-Times reported last month that police officer Christopher Hickman, 31, was caught on an August 2017 videotape subduing and punching 33-year-old Johnnie Jermaine Rush, whom officers had accused of jaywalking. Rush, who has said he was walking home from work, was also shocked with a stun gun as he screamed in pain, the Asheville paper reported.

In this case, as in many similar ones nationwide, the officer in question is white and the civilian is black. In a country hot with racial tension, blasting all the sunlight we can on such situations is crucial to confronting them and resolving them.

Last month, after the Asheville paper obtained and released a clip of Hickman’s body camera footage of the incident, police Chief Tammy Hooper publicly apologized to Rush and said that Hickman had resigned. He had left the department in January, but the public wasn’t informed. The Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges against Rush. Hickman faces a felony charge of assault by strangulation, the Asheville paper reported, and misdemeanor charges of assault and communicating threats. The Asheville City Council, after more coverage and editorials from its newspaper, including by Jennifer Bowman and Casey Blake, rightly pushed for release of more police videos in this case. Superior Court Judge Mark Powell rightly ruled that the new videos, from the body cameras of multiple officers, could be made public. City officials released the videos Monday. Good for them.

Thank God for the Asheville newspaper, especially in these days of newspapers struggling. Most municipal governments just aren’t going to push judges for release of controversial videos until they’re pushed, and pushed hard. The leaked footage started the righteous ball rolling in Asheville. In many other cities nationwide, civilians with video cameras have kicked it off.

But we shouldn’t have to depend on the serendipitous intervention of civilians to illuminate such confrontations, especially when we taxpayers are footing the bill for officers and their cameras. Our state senators and representatives should revisit their legislation on this critical issue and mandate that law-enforcement footage is indeed a public record and should be rapidly available to the citizens who pay for it – without a judicial order or the approval of municipal governments. The First Amendment of our Constitution demands it.

John Railey, a freelance writer who has lived and worked on the Outer Banks, is the former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. He can be reached at raileyjb@gmail.com.