KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Police departments across the country are facing the question that sent Charlotte, N.C., into turmoil this week. Should they publicly release their videos of a shooting by police of a civilian? Chief Kerr Putney of Charlotte has said not right now. He says the video in this case won't solve everything, and it could make things in Charlotte worse. But then the family of the man who was killed, Keith Lamont Scott, released cellphone video of the shooting that was taken by his wife.
With us now is Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and now an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Welcome to the show.
SETH STOUGHTON: Thank you for having me.
MCEVERS: What percentage of police departments across the country make it a practice to release video of shootings?
STOUGHTON: Yeah, the short answer is we don't actually know. There are 18,000 police agencies in the country, about 15,000 city and county agencies, and they can all do things a little bit or even very differently. Among the largest 20 agencies, only two that I'm aware of have policies that require video release within a specified time period. The rest either reject video release, or they make a play-by-play call, an ad hoc decision on a case-by-case basis.
MCEVERS: Right 'cause here in Los Angeles videos are not released.
STOUGHTON: That's right. So Las Vegas puts videos out within three days, and Los Angeles refuses to release videos at all.
MCEVERS: And so what are the reasons why police departments either don't ever release videos or tend to wait to release them?
STOUGHTON: There are a couple. The first is the phrase that we hear a lot - integrity of the investigation. And one of the ways that plays out is with human memory. When a witness watches a video of the event that they were also a witness in, it can actually change their memory.
So putting the information out too early can affect the investigation. And also thinking further down the line, releasing that information might taint a jury pool. It might require more extensive legal maneuvering. So there are some reasons that might make agencies reluctant to release them.
MCEVERS: And this is what we're hearing from Chief Putney in Charlotte. I mean this is one of the reasons he said. This might change people's memories of what they think they saw.
STOUGHTON: That's right. But it's important to remember that so do media broadcasts. So do other sources of video or social media stories. All of those sources of information can change someone's memory. I don't think there's anything unique or special about the police video.
What sometimes happens or appears to happen is the idea of investigative integrity is cover for - we think the video may make us look bad. And that's another reason why agencies don't release video. It's not, in my mind, a valid reason, but it is at the heart of at least some reluctance by some agencies on some occasions.
MCEVERS: So then would you say that you advocate releasing videos across the board whether it makes you look good or bad?
STOUGHTON: Well, I certainly advocate releasing it regardless of whether it makes you look good or bad. The fact that you release video can make you look good even if the video itself is a bad action.
MCEVERS: There are obviously police chiefs in this country who don't agree with you. Do you think they'll change their minds, or dig in and stay firm that they just don't need to release these things?
STOUGHTON: I think as we continue to struggle with this issue, they will dig in for a while. But agencies that leave the public in the dark are not getting the same level of trust and legitimacy as agencies that present information to the public, including sometimes information that they say very explicitly - we know this looks bad. We're handling it. We're on top of it. Here's the information. We are receptive to your concerns about the events in this video, and this is what we're doing to address those concerns. That's a far more engaged approach than, we're not releasing anything at this time.
MCEVERS: That's Seth Stoughton. He is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Thank you very much.
STOUGHTON: Thank you for having me.
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