Should body camera footage of a man being gunned down by police be released to the public?
That’s the question before a Merrimack County Superior Court judge, who will rule whether to release the video over the objections of the family of the man killed.
Two Haverhill police officers shot and killed 42-year-old Hagen Esty-Lennon back in July, shooting him six times as he reportedly lunged at them with a knife.
According to the Associated Press, an attorney for the town of Haverhill, the police department and the officers is arguing that disclosing the videotapes will show why the officer's actions were justified.
The attorney general’s office cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, and now several media organizations are pushing for the full video of the incident to be released.
And Tuesday, the New Hampshire-ACLU joins the effort to release that footage.
NH-ACLU lawyer Giles Bissonnette joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about the case.
The argument from the family of the man killed is they want to protect his two minor children from seeing the footage. Why release the video over the family’s objection?
I think the privacy interests here should absolutely be carefully examined by the court and I think we should all be sympathetic to the potentially traumatic impact these videos could have on his children. This is obviously a tremendously traumatic event for his family as well as even the officers involved.
But on balance, the public interest in disclosure and the importance of government accountability here we think is just too great. And the videos should be released. The media’s desire here to be clear is not to sensationalize what’s obviously a traumatic incident; it’s too assist the public in developing an informed understanding of whether the officers in this case, which involved a lethal use of force, acted appropriately. There’s also the question of whether the attorney general’s office did an adequate job of investigating this lethal use of force.
In particular, the public has a right to know how and when law enforcement officers use lethal force when confronting individuals who potentially are suffering from serious mental illness, as may be the case here.
The judge has viewed the video, and says there are graphic and disturbing images which have the potential to cause emotional and psychological damage to his children. Is that simply unavoidable in this case?
I think it is unavoidable. I mean, here unquestionably there is a tension between the privacy interest raised by the family and what we think is an overwhelming public interest in disclosure to see how this incident transpired and to see whether or not various de-escalation techniques could have been used, as opposed to his lethal use of force.
Do you see a middle ground here? For example, would you support the video being edited in some way so the more graphic elements are taken out, but you still get a sense of what occurred?
That’s possible and in fact it’s difficult for us and the media outlets to actually draw those lines here because they haven’t see the video themselves. Certainly, such as with documents, there is the opportunity to use blurring or redaction technology on the videos to try to protect those privacy interests. But here it’s just very hard to draw those lines because the judge is the only who’s seen those videos. I think it would certainly be reasonable to ascertain and examine whether or not that technology could be used here.
What kind of precedent could this ruling set?
It could potentially set precedent nationwide. This is the first open records case in the country that we’re aware of where a court’s been asked to decide whether body camera footage of a fatal police shooting should be disclosed under a state’s open records law over a family’s privacy objections. We’ll see what happens here and whether this case has precedent throughout the country.