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Four recent times it mattered that police video became public in North Carolina

·5 min read

Who gets to watch law enforcement videos matters. The recordings can clarify what occurred between residents and officers in conflict.

Body camera and dashboard camera footage don’t settle all disputes, but they record events during often chaotic encounters.

Here are four recent high-profile examples in North Carolina. A warning: Some of the video footage includes disturbing content.

Death in Forsyth jail

John Neville died of cardiac arrest and a brain injury from a lack of oxygen after being held face down in handcuffs inside Forsyth County Detention Center, The News & Observer reported. The sheriff did not disclose his 2019 death to the public right away.

Seven months later, in July 2020, Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced felony involuntary manslaughter charges against a nurse and five sheriff’s staff members there that day.

After The N&O and other media outlets petitioned a court, a Superior Court judge ordered that some video recordings of what happened inside the jail be released. The footage shows officers and a nurse with Neville as he emerged from what appeared to be a seizure. He was both confused and uncooperative.

After moving him handcuffed in a wheelchair to a second cell, officers placed Neville face down, still in handcuffs, on a mattress on the floor. They kept him there as they worked to remove those cuffs with keys, and when that did not work, bolt cutters, The N&O reported. Neville begged to be rolled over, saying more than 30 times that he could not breathe.

Neville’s family has sued the six people charged, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough and Wellpath, a medical company affiliated with the jail when Neville died.

Andrew Brown’s killing

A month after Andrew Brown Jr. was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble announced his conclusion that deputies acted lawfully and he would not charge them.

As part of his presentation, Womble played several minutes of video from body cameras recording the 44-second encounter outside Brown’s home. The video showed deputies, who had warrants to arrest Brown for allegedly dealing drugs, jumping out of the back of a department truck. Brown, who was unarmed, was sitting in a sedan parked in a driveway.

Rather than stepping out and raising his arm as deputies ordered, Brown hit the gas to try to escape. When Brown’s car headed toward a deputy, a sergeant fired into the front of Brown’s car, Womble said. Deputies fired at the rear of the car as it crossed a lot.

Brown was shot in the back of his head and in a shoulder, an autopsy found, Womble said during his presentation. Fourteen spent shell cases were found in the driveway and yard, Womble said during his presentation.

The serious threat the deputies perceived justified deputies deploying deadly force, Womble said.

Brown’s family interpreted the body-camera video they were shown very differently. They allege law enforcement used excessive force when they killed Brown, and their attorneys have filed a federal lawsuit seeking $30 million in damages.

Last month, a filing in the suit said a department body camera recorded one deputy “stressing out” over how many times he fired at Brown’s vehicle, The N&O reported. Brown was shot five times, the family says.

The N&O and other news outlets are still attempting to get all of the video released.

Guns pulled on Durham youth

Durham families were outraged in August 2020 after police pointed guns at a teenager and one of two younger children he was playing with on the grounds of their apartment complex. Police had rushed there after a caller said an armed man was spotted in the complex.

The children’s families and activists demanded that police release video of the encounter, saying the incident was an another example of police bringing excessive force against Black residents, The N&O reported.

Police released body-camera and security-camera footage in November, after an internal investigation. It showed at least four officers drew handguns and ran after the oldest youth, who was ordered to lie on the ground, handcuffed and searched. One officer briefly pointed his gun toward one of the younger boys, who were 8 and 11.

The video also captures the panic of adults who watched the episode unfold. After an internal investigation, the police department disciplined one officer, suspending him without pay for one day.

Police rancor in Alamance

Even after a judge ruled that they should, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Department and Graham police last summer refused to give news outlets video from a controversial law enforcement response to peaceful marchers in October 2020.

Hundreds of people had marched from a local church to the historic courthouse in downtown Graham, intending to continue to a nearby polling place. Police and deputies deployed multiple rounds of pepper fog on marchers, first to force the crowd off the road following a moment of silence for George Floyd.

In July, Judge Andrew H. Hanford said the agencies could keep the video under wraps while they appeal his order that it be released to news organizations, including The N&O. The month before, Hanford found that “failure to release the photos/recordings would undermine the public trust and confidence in the administration of justice,” The N&O reported.

But The N&O and other news outlets did publish some video capturing police behavior during the march that was acquired by subpoena by a defendant in court. That footage documented some Graham police responding to mostly African American marchers with open hostility.

One officer congratulates a sergeant, now the department’s assistant chief, for being first to deploy the pepper fog. Another expresses excitement while preparing to clear “these mother****ers.”

In a written statement posted on Twitter after the video was made published, Graham Police Chief Mary K. Cole acknowledged officers made some “unprofessional comments.” They faced challenging pressures at more than 40 demonstrations in Graham in 2020, she wrote.

“We ask that the community provides us with grace during rare occasions that we fall short,” she wrote.

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