NORTH MIDDLETON TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WHTM) — According to a lawsuit filed in April, Cumberland County District Attorney Sean McCormick has no reason to withhold body camera video showing the moments police shot and killed a man who they say shot at and then charged toward them.
The reason for body cameras and laws governing the release of video from them?
“Hey taxpayers, you should see what’s happening,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, a lawyer with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, characterizing legislators’ intent when they bought the cameras and then passed Act 22. Burke testified when legislators were crafting the law, and she is representing The Patriot-News/PennLive and Charles Thompson, a reporter for the newspaper, in the Cumberland County lawsuit.
“But unfortunately for the taxpayers who are footing the bill for these cameras, the equipment, the storage, all the software that goes along with it, we don’t often see that video footage,” Burke said.
McCormick couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
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“The first reaction from public officials generally is, ‘I’m not releasing this,'” said Terry Mutchler, chair of the transparency practice at Obermayer, a Philadelphia-based law firm, and former founding executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. “And the counter-reaction by the public is, ‘They must be hiding something.’ And neither of those is necessarily true.”
Mutchler said releasing the video can actually assuage a skeptical public.
“What transparency does here is it clears up a lot of confusion,” she said. “It stops rumors, and it gets to the core of what’s going on.”
Ann Doll, 54, of Tyrone Township in Adams County, wants to know the core of what went on in the February killing of her brother, then-54-year-old Roger Ellis, who would have turned 55 this week.
“My whole family needs closure on exactly what happened in his final moments on earth,” Doll said, adding she’s willing to believe police might have acted properly.
“If my brother wasn’t acting himself — they say he was on drugs — then, you know, I understand that, that they had to do what they had to do,” Doll said.
She said Ellis did have a history of drug addiction but seemed to be doing well in the days and weeks before his death.
She said Ellis, 11 months her senior, also had a history of far more positive things, like the ways he helped her 30-year-old daughter Amanda, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. She recalled the time a ramp from the ground to the deck behind her home was deteriorating.
“I said, ‘I want to replace the deck ramp for my daughter,'” Doll recalled. “And the next day, Roger shows up with the decking.”
Burke said she’s not saying body camera footage should always be released. Examples of when it shouldn’t include “confidentiality,” she said. “Witness protection, sometimes if something occurred in a home — a private home — and someone was in a state of undress or there were children there, that would be a sensitive matter.”
None of that is true in this case, Burke said, clarifying that she isn’t saying she knows police did something wrong in this instance, either.
But “if we see what’s happening, we can answer a lot of questions,” Burke said.
She credited Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams with a rare instance — in 2020 — of a district attorney proactively releasing body camera footage of events leading up to the shooting death of 27-year-old Ricardo Muñoz.
“We know in that case it was helpful to explain to the community visually, ‘This is what happened,'” she said. Although family and friends remained distraught, they could see Muñoz had indeed charged at police with a knife, as they had claimed.
“A picture tells a thousand words,” Burke said. “Videos [do] the same.”
Mutchler said the same would be true in the Cumberland County case.
“Both for the police department and the public, I think that this material needs to be released,” Mutchler said.