The City of Englewood has refused to release body camera footage on the Feb. 5 shooting death of 41-year-old Shelly Porter III by police officer Timothy Corcoran, saying the release would spark a “media firestorm.”
In a letter outlining his refusal to release the footage to the Dayton Daily News, Englewood Law Director Michael P. McNamee said the resulting media coverage would “taint the prospective jury pool” and thus prejudice Corcoran’s right to a fair trial should he be charged.
“We have all seen the media firestorm that arises from almost identical incidents in this country on an almost routine basis,” McNamee wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to the attorneys representing the newspaper. “Second, the nature of that firestorm is almost universally negative toward the officer involved. There is no reason to expect a different public reaction in this case.”
A Cincinnati media attorney who has handled a number of public records cases, called the reason used to deny release of the records “preposterous” and questioned if the denial would be the same if the race of the officer was different. Corcoran is white and Porter was black.
“It sounds to me like he’s creating this automatic rule that if it’s a white cop and black victim that somehow you can’t release the body camera (footage),” said Jack Greiner. “That’s kind of offensive.”
Reached Thursday and asked to respond, McNamee said: “I appreciate the questions that have been posed, but at this time it would be entirely inappropriate for me to answer any one of those questions.”
Returning to duty
Corcoran returned to full duty Thursday after he was cleared by a clinical psychologist, according to Englewood police Sgt. Mike Lang.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is investigating the shooting and will hand the results over to the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s office, which will then consider whether charges are warranted. Lang said the criminal investigation is basically over pending Porter’s toxicology results.
Porter died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.
Englewood police say Corcoran responded to a report of shots being fired into a Motel 6. He chased Porter to an abandoned motel where a struggle ensued and fired to save his own life, according to Englewood police.
Lang has said the department is “100 percent in support of our officer’s actions.” Although all of Englewood’s 20 full-time and three part-time police officers are white, Lang said he is not aware of any obvious racial tension in Englewood.
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Fair trial concerns
In the wake of highly publicized police officer-involved shootings across the country, more and more departments have equipped their officers with body cameras, which can give both the police and the public information on whether an officer’s actions were appropriate.
After the Corcoran shooting, Lang stated that the department wanted to release the body cam footage.
At least 95 percent of the push for police body cameras has to do with transparency, said Patrick Oliver, director of the Criminal Justice program at Cedarville University.
“The public can see what the police are doing and the police can see what the public are doing,” Oliver said.
But when and how such footage gets released is a relatively new debate, he said, and many departments have held off on releasing the information.
“As more and more police departments are adding body cameras, it’s becoming, I think, more challenging for both law enforcement agenices and the courts to kind of deal with this issue,” said Oliver, who is a former police chief in Cleveland, Grandview Heights and Fairborn.
Greiner, who has represented several news organizations in public records fights, took issue with the Englewood law director’s argument that release of the footage would jeopardize Corcoran’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
“That statement is just not supported by any data,” he said. “It’s not supported by what has happened across the country.”
Greiner pointed to several cases in which video of police interactions with citizens was captured and the officers were not convicted.
In New York, the police officer in the Eric Garner case was not charged. Garner, 43, died in 2014 when two officers in Staten Island accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Video showed officer Daniel Pantaleo using a prohibited choke hold to control Garner, who said, “I can’t breathe” before he died..
In South Carolina, video taken by a passerby in 2015 showed a police officer shoot Walter Scott several times in the back as Scott was running away. That case ended in a mistrial.
In Cleveland, a police officer wasn’t charged in 2014 when video showed he shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving on scene at a park near a recreation center.
In Cincinnati, 2015 body cam video of University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing showed him shoot Sam DuBose during a traffic stop. Tensing’s first trial ended in a hung jury.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said body camera footage should be “presumptively open like any other public record.
“And if the footage doesn’t fall into any of the exemptions under the law, then they should be releasing it,” he said. “And if parts of it are exempt, they should be editing it and/or redacting it and releasing the rest of it.”
Like many other police departments, Englewood has released surveillance video of alleged robberies to media outlets before suspects are apprehended, arrested, charged, tried or convicted.
Asked if those videos should be treated differently than police officer body camera footage, Oliver said process-wise, it shouldn’t be.
“There is more deference for a law enforcement officer than for one who is just a regular citizen,” he said. “It should be the same for American peace officers and civilians.”
Greiner and Oliver agreed that just because video is released doesn’t mean it will cause bias that can’t be overcome.
“I think the courts tend to have lot of confidence in the jury system and in jurors that they will be fair-minded and not have made up their mind even if they have seen something in advance of the trial,” Greiner said. “I think it’s kind of cynical to try to use the Sixth Amendment in that setting that somehow the release of the body camera footage will not just prejudice the jury, but prejudice the jury in a way that can’t be remedied.”
Hetzel said refusing to release information to the public casts doubt on the police version of events.
“When the cops just sit on stuff in sensitive cases, it just raises more suspicion,” he said.
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