After Controversial Traffic Stop, Police Chief Says He Won’t Release Recordings To ‘Anti-Police’ Requesters

Tech Dirt – by Tim Cushing

The Chesterfield County Police Department is willing to violate your rights. If it’s not your Fourth Amendment rights, it’ll be your First. And this is fine with the department’s chief, who’s gone on record as a supporter of rights violations.

A traffic stop for a minor violation quickly escalated into a life-or-death situation for a black college student cops. Elie Mystal of Above the Law breaks it down as only Elie can

Yesha Callahan’s son survived his encounter with police. The Virginia State University freshman was pulled over last month on suspicion of being black (the police are calling it marijuana something or other, but I’ve long since stopped trying to sugarcoat their probable cause for them). Police saw something in his waistband, they claimed, and pulled a gun on him. For 38 seconds, the boy’s life was at the mercy of the state. But he kept his cool, and survived. No shots were fired.

If you think this is too “anti-police,” here’s a different take from Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who has seen the body camera footage.

In the police body camera footage, the car rolls through a red light on Chesterfield Avenue as it turns right onto East River Road in Ettrick.

An unmarked Chesterfield County police car flashes its lights and pulls the vehicle over. The traffic stop seems unremarkable until an officer wearing a body camera asks the driver — by now, standing outside the car at the officer’s request — if he’s in possession of anything illegal. The driver attempts to tell the officer he has a knife and starts to reach for it.

The knife, as it turns out, was legal. But the situation instantly spiraled from calm to chaotic.

“Don’t reach. Don’t reach. Do not reach,” shouts the officer’s partner, who points a gun at the driver from the other side of the vehicle.

“He’s got something clipped in front of his pants,” he shouts to his partner, as the driver continues to attempt to explain himself. “OK, don’t you freaking grab for a knife!”

As the driver, a Virginia State University student, is being handcuffed, the gun remains trained on him for 38 seconds. When the handcuffs are secured, the officer lowers the weapon. Throughout the encounter, a passenger in the car who is also enrolled at VSU remains still in his seat.

The knife was legal and the student compliant. But still guns were drawn by men who seem to only stop yelling when they start “fearing for their safety.” No marijuana was found and the driver was released without a citation. His mother took her complaint to the court of public opinion. (She also filed one with the police department.)

Callahan, though, was not merely satisfied that her boy was spared an execution. Callahan is a writer for the Root and shared her experience there. She tweeted about it. She made herself an issue for the Chesterfield County Police Department. She filled out a FOIA request demanding that the department release the body cam footage of her son’s nearly deadly traffic stop.

The Department denied her request.

Callahan wants to know what happened to her son — how a minor traffic violation turned into a guns-drawn situation. Police Chief Jeffrey Katz doesn’t want to give it to her. At first, the department claimed it couldn’t release the video because of an “ongoing investigation.” It’s a bullshit reason, considering no ticket was issued and no charges were filed. When this was pointed out, the police spokesman spun it, claiming it was part of an internal investigation of the officers involved in the stop. But the police chief wasted no time undercutting his spokesperson’s excuse.

“This is a video we would want out in the public,” Katz said. “There’s nothing in the video bad for the officer or bad for the department or bad for the profession.”

This doesn’t sound like the words of man running an investigation. This sounds like the involved officers have already been cleared. But this statement comes at the end of a string of statements by the police chief which show he’s violating Yesha Callahan’s First Amendment rights, along with public records laws, just because he doesn’t like her.

Katz says part of the reason the department has not released the video to Callahan is that she has “an anti-law enforcement agenda.”

That’s not a valid reason to withhold records. Lots of people who requests records aren’t supportive of the entities they request records from. Katz is creating serious, legally-actionable First Amendment issues by stating he’ll only release records to friendly requesters. Chief Katz goes further, though, suggesting he won’t release records to anyone who might present them along with negative commentary.

“I believe we have a responsibility to maintain custody of the video and not put it in the public domain,” he said, “because we want to ensure that it is not spliced, that voice overs are not placed over it and that we can maintain and control the authenticity of the video. But we are more than willing to share the video with anybody who wants to come in and view it.”

This is beyond stupid. The best weapon against speech you don’t like is more speech. If someone alters the video and/or adds commentary, the department can release unedited videos for comparison. You cannot withhold records just because you think you won’t like how they’ll be used. Chief Katz is violating Callahan’s First Amendment rights because he apparently believes “anti-police” people have fewer rights than those with more neutral viewpoints.

The invitation to view the recordings on Chief Katz’s home turf doesn’t make the rights violations disappear. There’s little to like about viewing recordings surrounded by people who don’t like you. This would be a five-hour round trip for Callahan — one she’d prefer to make with her lawyer. It would be simpler for everyone if Katz would just hand over a copy of the recordings. But he won’t. And his statements make it clear he’ll violate the First Amendment in the future if it keeps documents from falling into the hands of his enemies.. you know, members of the public he serves. Fortunately, he’s said these things out loud to members of the press, which will come in handy for Callahan when she files her public records lawsuit against the department.

We all know public agencies will do everything they can to keep documents out of the hands of critics. But most of those agencies have been smart enough to use FOIA exemptionsexcessive fees, and years of foot-dragging to withhold documents from the public. Chief Katz, however, is a transparency pioneer: one willing to tell journalists he won’t release records to people he doesn’t like. This isn’t going to end well for him.

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