The city of Minneapolis plans to release body camera video showing officers fatally shooting Thurman Junior Blevins after all witnesses have been interviewed, Mayor Jacob Frey said Tuesday.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the Minneapolis Police Department and Frey have come under increasing pressure to share the video from the killing last weekend of Blevins, 31, following a chase by officers that ended in a north Minneapolis alley.
The officers involved in the shooting, Justin Schmidt and Ryan Kelly, both had their body cameras activated, according to Minneapolis police.
State law allows authorities to release body camera video before the investigation is complete, if they decide it benefits the public. But agencies typically wait until the case is closed, arguing that releasing the video too soon could undermine their investigation.
The decision breaks with precedent by releasing video while the investigation continues.
In a statement, Frey said, “The desire for a transparent process must always be balanced with the need for a complete and fair investigation. To that end, I have decided to release the body camera footage.
“Two things, however, must happen first. The family of Thurman Blevins must be consulted. And the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) needs to have finished interviewing key witnesses. … Releasing the body camera footage prior to these witness interviews would be harmful to what we as a city collectively want: That the investigation retain its integrity and that we have a thorough and transparent account of the facts.”
Calls for greater transparency have grown since the shooting Saturday, from City Hall to Minneapolis’ North Side, where tensions are high after another slaying by police officers. Blevins, who is black, was killed Saturday in the Camden neighborhood, after police say someone reported a man matching his description walking down the street, firing a 9-millimeter handgun into the ground and the air.
The days since have spawned competing narratives. Police have said Blevins was armed when he encountered the officers. His family members and several witnesses have said he had a bottle in his hands.
Both sides hope the raw video will settle the dispute, while preventing the kind of racial unrest that roiled the city after the controversial police shooting of Jamar Clark, another black man, outside of a North Side apartment building nearly three years ago.
Schmidt, who joined the department in 2014, and Kelly, who joined the force in 2013, have been placed on standard paid leave, pending the outcome of the BCA investigation. Both are white.
Activists have said video of the shooting will clear up such questions as whether Blevins was facing the officers when he was killed and if he had raised his gun at them. Others said that even if he was armed, they wanted to see proof his actions justified officers’ use of deadly force.
On Monday, all 13 City Council members signed a letter imploring the BCA to release video from the officers’ body cameras as soon as “legally possible.” Police officials said they, too, are in favor of releasing the footage, but “at a time when it does not interfere or impede this investigation.”
“Transparency is imperative to maintaining public trust and demonstrates accountability,” spokesman John Elder said in a statement. “MPD asks everyone to hold judgment until the facts have been collected and are made available.”
Gov. Mark Dayton has been monitoring the investigation, his assistant chief of staff, Laura Cederberg, said in a statement Tuesday.
Representatives for the BCA didn’t respond to multiple messages left Tuesday.
Longtime department observer and activist Ron Edwards was among those calling for transparency after the latest police shooting.
“I think it would be good for the purposes of transparency and everything else, it would be wise to release that,” Edwards said. “First and foremost to the family.”
Traditionally, local law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to release such footage because it would hurt their investigation, according to transparency advocate Matt Ehling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MnCOGI).
But there are exceptions under state law “if the agency determines that the access will aid the law enforcement process, promote public safety, or dispel widespread rumor or unrest,” Ehling said, reciting the law’s wording.
“Whoever controls the data can use their discretion to release the video,” he wrote in an e-mail in response to a reporter’s inquiry. “Here, BCA has a copy, but if Minneapolis also has a copy (which they likely do), they also have discretion to release the video.”
But releasing video footage too soon could also complicate any potential court battles, while giving defense attorneys an easier path to arguing for a change in venue, said Fred Bruno, a Minneapolis-based lawyer whose clients often include police officers.
“Anytime there’s too much publicity ahead of time, there’d be a risk that the potential jury pool could be tainted if they made up their mind in advance,” he said.
So video of controversial incidents in Minnesota is typically withheld from the public for the months or even years.
Authorities waited six months before releasing body camera footage from the police shooting of Marcus Fischer, an 18-year-old shooting suspect who sneaked a knife into an interview room at police headquarters and ignored repeated commands to drop it. Earlier this month, Fischer pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault in the incident.
Police departments across the nation are grappling with how and when to release video of critical incidents. After Los Angeles police officers killed a man during a standoff in May, officials vowed to release video within 45 days.
Last week, the department delivered an edited version of the video, drawing cautious praise from civil liberties and police accountability groups.