Less than 24 hours after a deputy in Grand Ledge, Michigan, fatally shot a suspect on July 14, Michigan State Police and the Eaton County Sheriff's Office released neighborhood surveillance video and body camera footage of the killing.

The video showed Sean Ruis — who police said stabbed an elderly convenience store clerk after being asked to wear a mask in the store — approach the deputy during a traffic stop while carrying knives and a screwdriver. The deputy back pedals and repeatedly screams at the advancing Ruis to drop the weapons before shooting him.

Since 2015, at least 5,480 people have been killed by police in line-of-duty shootings, including 95 in Virginia, according to The Washington Post. Nearly all the shootings were ruled justified, and body camera footage is often a key aspect in the rulings. 

But while police in other states regularly release video of officer-involved shootings or controversial arrests, local and Virginia State Police rarely do, even in cases when they say the video shows that the officers acted properly. 

With calls around the nation for greater police accountability and transparency in the wake of the death of Black driver George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, why are local and state police reluctant to release video?

Protests in the wake of Floyd's death were mostly peaceful, but police response to some of them was viewed as violent, leading the Virginia General Assembly to schedule a special legislative session on criminal justice reform on Aug. 18.

Many people demanding reform acknowledge police have a difficult and dangerous job. Officers regularly respond to volatile domestic violence calls and often deal with rowdy drunks or mentally ill people in crisis. The use of police body cameras was deemed as a way to help give the public a better idea of what officers deal with while holding them accountable and protecting police departments from frivolous lawsuits.

In 2014, a white officer killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, a Black man selling cigarettes on the street, died after being put in a choke hold by a white NYPD officer. Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population but 25% of the people fatally shot by police, according to The Post.

In response, the Obama administration began providing federal money to police departments for body cameras. Proponents said it would change the narrative by showing how tough policing can be and demonstrate that most officers do their job right.

When then-Frederick County Sheriff's Office Deputy Brian Edward Thomas fatally shot Christopher A. Prevatt in 2015, state police and the Sheriff's Office said Thomas' body camera showed Prevatt lunged at him with two knives before being shot. But Freedom of Information Act requests by The Winchester Star for the body camera footage and 911 audio of the incident were denied by then-Sheriff Robert T. Williamson, who took nearly two weeks to identify Thomas and noted state FOIA law didn't require him to. The Post reported about 20% of officers involved in fatal shootings nationally are never identified.

When Winchester police Officer Alexandria M. Warren fired two shots at a man she said reached for a pistol on Jan. 8, 2019, she was cleared within two weeks after a state police investigation. Marc Abrams, Winchester commonwealth's attorney, said Warren's body camera footage helped him decide the shooting, in which the man wasn't injured, was justified. But state police denied a Winchester Star FOIA request for the video.

Even with advent of the body and cruiser cameras, much of the video of arrests and shootings seen by the public comes from bystanders who record it on their phones or neighborhood surveillance video, not law enforcement. That's begun to change nationally, but despite body cameras being purchased with public money, the public in Virginia rarely sees the footage.

'Predisposition to disclose'

Virginia's FOIA law allows police to release information such as body and cruiser camera video as well as 911 audio, plus disciplinary reports about officers and their personnel records. But it doesn't require them to.

Because of that broad exemption that other states don't have, the information often isn't made public. That's despite the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council encouraging police to adopt a "predisposition to disclose" policy.

"It is important to keep in mind that FOIA does not prohibit the release of any information. Information that is exempted may be released at the agency's discretion, and frequently an agency may find that it serves its best interests to do so," the council stated in an online summary of police records and state FOIA law. "It is an established fact that law enforcement benefits when citizens are informed to the maximum extent possible."

Despite calls for greater transparency, Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland said in an email interview that he wouldn't have released the Prevatt video if he'd been sheriff in 2015. Millholland, a police officer since 1979, took office in 2016.

In 2017, cellphone video showed a Frederick County deputy throw homeowner Dr. Jill Call to the ground and another deputy punch her in the back while she was being handcuffed as her house burned down. Call, who had been trying to turn off gas to her home and rescue chickens, was charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice. In exchange for agreeing in writing not to sue the Sheriff's Office, the charges were dropped.

Millholland said body camera footage showed his deputies acted properly, but he denied a Star FOIA request for the video. A FOIA request for an internal affairs report clearing the deputies was also denied by Millholland.

In the email, Millholland said there was "no benefit" in releasing the videos of Call or Prevatt. Asked if the public has a right to see the evidence that deputies acted properly when a police-involved shooting or incident occurs, Millholland said they should take his word for it.

"Yes, I absolutely am asking that," he said. "On Nov. 5, 2019, there were 14,099 voters who granted me that trust and I take it seriously. I don't believe that I need to show a video to prove that my integrity or that of my people is still intact in a case where nothing wrong was done."

Millholland added that police and the public don't benefit from video or other evidence showing officers acting properly.

"They benefit from the fact that a thorough and impartial investigation was conducted. If we start showing every video of every incident, even those with no wrongdoing, what happens when a video isn't available for whatever reason?" he asked. "How do we prove that we are telling the truth at that point?"

But Eaton County Sheriff Tom Reich said if police don't release body camera video of controversial incidents, the public is likely to jump to conclusions. Reich, who took office in 2013 and began his policing career in 1973, said he decided to immediately release video of the June 14 killing to be transparent. He said he probably would have released the video even if it showed his deputy acting improperly.

"The way social media is today, if you aren't transparent, people make up their own stories or the media makes up stories," he said. "If people don't see it with their own eyes, people are going to make up their own minds."

'Transparency is a good thing'

Winchester Police Chief John R. Piper noted in a recent email that the decision not to release video of the Warren shooting was made by state police. Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman, wouldn't say what her agency's rationale is for releasing or withholding video of police shootings they investigate for local police.

When Winchester police purchased body cameras in 2017, Piper said at a news conference, "We want to err on the side of being transparent in line with the city’s strategic view. At City Council’s direction, we will make body camera footage available when we can, when it’s possible and permissible under FOIA and law.”

But Piper also said at the news conference that police were unlikely to release video involving pending criminal prosecutions. Cases can take months, or even years, to be adjudicated.

In a recent email, Piper said his department decides on a case-by-case basis about releasing body camera video. The department doesn't have cruiser cameras.

Among the considerations are whether the video is evidence in an ongoing investigation and whether it might violate the privacy of the people in the video. "We attempt to weigh those concerns against the benefits of the general public consuming the video," said Piper, who is planning to release use-of-force statistics online to the public in the next few months.

Asked if his office would release body camera video and 911 audio if his deputies were involved in a shooting or controversial arrest, Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper wouldn't say. However, Roper said his office complies with Virginia's broad FOIA law and understands the need for the public to trust his agency. "We make efforts to maintain that trust and believe that most records are open under guiding legal authority," he said in an email.

That's not good enough for Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County. Gooditis said she understands that police video is often part of criminal investigations and there are privacy considerations, but it's important for the public to see it when it involves a high-profile incident. "Transparency is a good thing and people have a right to see how officers are behaving," Gooditis said after a July 25 public forum on policing in Winchester.

But there are no plans at the upcoming special session to change Virginia's FOIA law to require police to make audio and video public, according to state Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton. Locke, a liaison to the FOIA Advisory Council, said if a change were proposed, it would probably first go to the council for study.

Locke said she understands how body camera video of a police shooting or controversial arrest could potentially taint a jury pool — about 95% of criminal cases in the state and nation don't go to trial — but she also noted that with phone video being ubiquitous, the public is likely to see it any way. Locke said if body cameras are part of an investigation, "I would certainly want to see the footage."

Veronyka James, a Shenandoah University associate professor of criminal justice, studies how police-involved shootings shape people's perception of police. James said in an email that she supports changing Virginia's FOIA law to require the release of police video and other evidence in shootings if it can be done without putting officers or anyone in the video in danger. 

"By not releasing footage, it makes it seem like there is something to hide, even if there is nothing to hide," she said. "Each incident needs to be considered and the pros and cons weighed. It is a delicate balance to determine when footage needs to be released."

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(18) comments

4tham

Sheriff Milholland, should we take your "word" for it that the Police special bulldog .380 found under Dlondre Minifield's head after the Winchester Police officers said he shot himself in the back of his own head --- was inventoried by FCSO... regardless that it had not been put into NCIC Database until 2weeks after Minifield was shot? Would have been nice to have body cams to demonstrate how someone evading arrest can shoot himself in the back of his own head and then place the gun under the front of his head.

Bryan.the.Nuri

Considering that happened in the City of Winchester, I don't think Sheriff Millholland would have had anything to do with this.

Journey2goremtns1

Go ahead and say it

Journey2goremtns1

Go ahead a say it....it's what y'all do. I'm White and I disagree with your BS so the only thing you can do is ready big surprise call me a RACIST! If you hurry you can catch the flight to Portland and spray paint "I'm a RACIST on the Federal building with other "Peaceful protesters"

Journey2goremtns1

@spock here - I'm tired of being blamed by black people just because I'm White!

Spock Here

Poor baby. But, reading what you write, I don't think it's your skin color that is the issue.

Bryan.the.Nuri

Then stop putting yourself in positions that make you out to appear racist or bigoted...

CTJINVA

"Asked if the public has a right to see the evidence that deputies acted properly when a police-involved shooting or incident occurs, Millholland said they should take his word for it."

THIS is the root of corruption in government. Reagan said "Trust But Verify", but Lenny is in a position that does not allow for the "verify" part. We trust you to act with integrity. We trust you to enforce the law equally. We trust you to be a good administrator of those things in your charge. We only require an ability to verify. I can certainly understand your desire to remain behind a curtain and your desire for trust, but you've lost my support with this stance.

Dadof3

Millholland can’t even manage his budget and he asks that we trust him? While I don’t ever think he would do something illegal, stretching the boundaries, or shading the gray I would. This is why transparency is needed and why the video should be released.

Journey2goremtns1

There goes the Winchester Star again! Upper case B in black and Lower case w in white. Why the difference?

dskip23

New writing rules from the Associated Press....https://apnews.com/7e36c00c5af0436abc09e051261fff1f

Violet

Doesn't make it right. Lower case for white is showing bias against White people if black is capitalized. Either capitalize both white and black or lower case for both. I'm so tired of White folks being biased against.

Doc Samson

@Violet - Oh, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Wait until summer is over and the election gets closer...

Spock Here

“We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore these problems,” John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, said in a memo to staff Monday. “But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Spock Here

If this is all the poor white victims are worried about, I guess we have it pretty good. Outrage over editorial style guidelines Poor victim didn't get a cap W LOL "Claims of subjugation may seem silly coming from whites, a group that still earns more, lives longer, and feels overall happier than African Americans do. But as Berbrier shows, victimhood is a powerful psychological mechanism for recruiting members, galvanizing around a cause, and forming what is essentially a support group—for people who really don’t need support"

libertyspirit

"Protests in the wake of Floyd's death were mostly peaceful" - this is fake news brought to you by the Winchester Star. Entire blocks, including several minority businesses were burned to the ground in Minneapolis. Six square blocks of Seattle were occupied and the police were forced to abandon their headquarters in fear of their personal safety. People were shot in the CHAZ/CHOP zone and died because the "peaceful" protesters would not allow first responders to respond. Look at what's going on in Portland, and again in Seattle and several other cities and you see looting and property destruction on a scale that belies your use of the term "peaceful".

Doc Samson

@libertyspirit - The Left truly believes that if you ignore it, it didn't happen. Wait til you read Kovach's BLM letter! Has all the hallmarks of a wild-eyed, Kool Aid swilling, Bible thumper... [lol]

Violet

Just let the election and this Covid virus and all of the other social garbage going on now be over already

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