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Release the tapes

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A protester, right, expresses his opinion to a police officer and another pedestrian near Trade and Tryon Streets in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, as demonstrations continue following the shooting death of Keith Scott by police earlier in the week. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)
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“Release the tapes.”

That was the chant in Charlotte, N.C., this past week as protesters demanded the police department make public the body camera video of the death of Keith Scott, a black man who was killed by police Tuesday. Police claim he refused orders to drop a gun; his family maintains he was unarmed. This is the latest in the recurring nightmare this nation has been trapped in for years — generations, really — a terrifying mix of distrust, fear, racial animus, gun violence and abuse of power.

The Charlotte police chief, in initially refusing last week to release the tapes, said he would only release the tapes if “there is a compelling reason” to do so. He implied that doing so might jeopardize the investigation. He further said he didn’t believe that “display[ing] a victim’s worst day for public consumption” served any goal of transparency.

On Saturday, he relented and announced the department would make the tapes public. It is the right decision, but it also highlights the need for every police department to have a clear video release policy — one that, while protecting ongoing investigations, prioritizes and privileges public disclosure. If vital records to the public interest continue to be released only in a haphazard fashion, justice will not be served.

It is maddening to see officials use such disingenuous, weak-kneed objections to propriety as a justification to shield evidence from the public eye. Yes, it’s upsetting stuff. Yes, it will show people at their worst. Yes, undoubtedly, it was a very bad day for the person who died. But that’s just the point — a person died. Maybe the best way to respect the dead is to make sure we understand all we can about what happened in their last moments.

Too much is at stake to allow this national nightmare to continue without trying to address the festering distrust that is at the core of so much of our heartbreak and outrage. The distrust, it is important to point out, is a two-way street — infecting both the police and the policed. The victims of these shootings are everybody — both officers and civilians.

The growing public suspicion that police will always hide footage unless it exonerates them is a cancer in our communities. We must end this cycle of animosity that undercuts our civic society.

“Release the tapes.”

In the case of North Carolina, the Scott family viewed the tapes and acknowledged the video raises more questions than it answers about the incident. That body cam footage may not be conclusive is neither surprising nor an excuse to keep it from the public. If the footage raises questions, then they are the kind of questions that the public has a right to know about and grapple with for themselves. They are vital pieces of the record that should be part of the public discourse. A North Carolina law set to take effect Oct. 1 will further restrict public disclosure of police video footage.

As we saw recently in San Francisco, body cam footage does not always favor those confronted by the police. In July, when a man was taken to the ground by BART police on a station platform, some claimed it was a clear case of police brutality. But police body cams bolstered the officers’ actions and contradicted other footage captured by cellphones. We shouldn’t be surprised when such tapes confirm the good work of officers in tough situations. Sometimes it will be a muddle of inconclusive images. Whatever the case, hiding the tapes will only continue to erode trust, accountability and safety on our streets.

Selected San Francisco officers began wearing body cameras in August, and the entire force will be outfitted with the devices by the end of November, the department has said.

We have written before that the San Francisco Police Department must establish a clear and fair video release policy — one that not only protects ongoing investigations but also rebuilds trust in a skeptical public. This is especially crucial as The City searches for its next chief, after the resignation of Greg Suhr in May, following a series of police killings and deteriorating trust in the department.

In San Francisco, we still do not know conclusively what led to the shooting deaths by police of three people of color in the last year. The deaths of Mario Woods, killed by police last December; Luis Gongora, killed by police in April; and Jessica Williams, shot to death in May trying to flee police in a stolen car — hours before Suhr resigned — have still not been adequately explained.

This level of violence, distrust and lack of transparency is unacceptable in San Francisco and in other cities across the nation — places like Charlotte, Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge, Columbus, Tulsa, Cleveland, Dallas, Baltimore, New York, Ferguson and too many others to list.

This is a dangerous time — it feels the foundation of trust in our government and in the mechanisms we’ve created to serve and protect us have atrophied to a paper-thin level. It is terrifying to think what might come next if this trend continues.

Full disclosure of body camera footage is not going to solve the problem, but it will be a positive step. And we need positive steps right now.

Release the tapes.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

Correction: This editorial was corrected Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. The editorial initially said a man was taken to the ground by San Francisco police on a BART platform. BART police were actually the officers involved in that incident. The Examiner regrets the error.

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