Jose Charles was dazed, bleeding from his head and surrounded by police after an incident that would leave him accused of fighting, resisting arrest and spitting a mouthful of blood into a police officer’s face.
His mother had gone to take one of the 15-year-old’s siblings to the bathroom at a Fourth of July celebration in Greensboro, N.C. — and returned to find an officer’s hand around Jose’s neck. On the ground, she saw “blood, lots of it.”
What happened in the interim depends on whom you ask. Police charged Jose with four crimes, including attacking an officer. The teenager and his mother say police slammed and choked him without provocation. In a month, the court’s interpretation of the incident could determine Jose’s fate.
Meanwhile, an unbiased account — body camera footage from several officers who were at the scene of the encounter — is sitting on a server in the cloud, where almost no one can see it. Standing in the way of clarity and transparency, critics say, is a new North Carolina law that makes it more difficult than ever to view recordings of controversial interactions between police and members of the public.
Jose’s case is the first major test to North Carolina’s HB 972 since it took effect in October — and also the most controversial.
Activists say the teenager’s case is another example of police brutality from a police department that has had two officers resign amid an investigation of excessive force involving a black person. The new law has layered frustration on top of the critics’ fury. On Tuesday night, several activists aired their concerns at a city council meeting in Greensboro, asking elected officials to try to delay Jose’s case or have the charges dropped altogether — and to force the release of the video.
“What possible harm to the case or to the community could there be if they release the footage?” Lewis Pitts, a retired lawyer who has spoken to city council members about the case, told The Washington Post. “The only harm is it creates liability and embarrassment for the police department. That’s the only thing driving this police secrecy.”
The law requires anyone who wants to see police body camera footage to pay a fee and plead their case to a Superior Court judge. State Rep. John Faircloth, a former police chief-turned-legislator who sponsored the bill, conceded that the law gives an inordinate amount of power to prosecutors, who have the most information about whether releasing body-cam footage would jeopardize a person’s right to a fair trial.
But Jose Charles’s mom, Tamara Figueroa, cares less about the nuances of North Carolina’s open-records laws and more about the future of her son, who, she said, suffers from schizoaffective disorder.
She said prosecutors have told her that if Jose doesn’t plead guilty to assault, they’ll ask a judge to send him to a training school, which Figueroa calls “a kiddie jail,” unequipped to treat his mental illness. It could change his life for the worse.
The video could change public perception and her son’s fate, Figueroa said: She has seen the footage and remains adamant that her son didn’t assault a police officer. At a minimum, Figueroa says, the police department and the district attorney’s office need to take a harder look at the case before Jose’s next court date in May.
A judge already has blocked the release of the video to Figueroa, after the district attorney filed a motion saying she probably would release it to the public, Pitts told The Washington Post.
The lack of public access to the footage has rankled civil rights leaders. City council members also have said they’d like to see the video, although they’re waiting to find out whether Greensboro’s police chief will revisit his decision not to charge the officers.
Both the Greensboro Police Department and District Attorney Doug Henderson’s office declined to comment for this article because it involves an ongoing criminal case about a juvenile.
Figueroa thinks prosecutors and police just want the case to go away. If her son enters a plea, she said, “no one has to reinvestigate. No one has to view the camera footage. There’s no civil liability, no public apology.”
She added that “we’re not pleading guilty.”
For weeks before the incident, Jose had been involved in a war of words on social media with a group of boys, his mother said.
It turned violent as the family attended Greensboro’s annual Independence Day celebration. Figueroa’s youngest child and niece had to use the bathroom that day, but Jose and the older children didn’t want to stand in the long line for the portable toilets.
While he waited, Jose was found by the boys he’d been fighting with on social media. Things turned violent and Jose got the worst of it, his mother said.
Waiting in the restroom line, Figueroa saw the commotion and started running toward her son. On her way, she said, one of the teenager’s close friends called Figueroa on her cellphone.
“She’s screaming, just screaming, ‘They’re beating him; the police are beating him!,’ ” Figueroa said. “When I got there, I found Jose handcuffed in an alleyway, beaten, bloody, being choked.”
Jose told his mom that the boys he fought with scattered when police arrived, but that he had stayed put, waiting for her.
He said he’d taken off his shirt to wipe the blood from his face as an officer walked up and asked what happened.
“N—-a, I just got jumped,” he told the officer, according to the family.
Then, they say, the officer slammed him to the ground.
He was handcuffed and lying on his side, blood from a head wound trickling into his mouth. When he tried to stand, officers knocked him back to the ground, the family says. He swore at the officers, demanding they let him up.
He later told his mother that when he got to his feet, he spit out blood, but it was more of a gagging reflex than an attempt to spit on the officer.
The authorities didn’t believe him — and Figueroa concedes she didn’t fully trust his account, either.
But she knew the officers had been wearing body cameras. The truth, she figured, would be on video.
Four months passed before she, her son and their attorney were brought to police headquarters to see the footage.
Afterward, she said, she wanted the whole city to see it.
The city of Greensboro was one of the first in the nation to get police body cameras, and the initial results from the program were highlighted in recommendations to other agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum. The cameras, city leaders said, would make both officers and the people they interact with more civil. When things went wrong, the video could help resolve disputes, according to the Greensboro New & Record.
But the Greensboro Police Department, like many North Carolina law enforcement agencies, elected to make body-camera recordings part of officer personnel files — making it nearly impossible for the public to see the record, said Jonathan Jones, director of the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University.
HB 972 then raised a bar many already thought was too high to access a police video record, Jones told The Post.
“It created a significant hurdle for anyone who wants to see police video,” he said. “That hurdle is they have to go to court, they have to pay a $200 fee — just to ask for permission to see it. And they have to file legal documents … with the assistance of a lawyer. And then there’s a hearing to be held if there’s a dispute over whether or not a video should be released.”
Faircloth, the Guilford County Republican who wrote the legislation, said its intent was to take the politics out of requests for body-camera footage.
“So many departments began getting body cameras and there were no rules,” Faircloth said. “Everybody was sort of operating their own way and not understanding the impact of those issues. It would be nice if we could react to every desire that we have to know what’s going on in issues like this. But we have a justice system that says, ‘Wait, we have to take this a step at a time.’ ”
Pitts said the district attorney’s office has told a judge that releasing the video would affect Jose Charles’s case.
Sharon Hightower, a city council member who approved getting body cameras for Greensboro’s police officers, said she voted to do so “because I can brag, there’s nothing going on, the camera will show that. If there’s something going on, the camera will show that. I believe that creates more transparency. … And then came along and said nope, wait a minute, let’s change when you can view it.”
Now, she said, “the process doesn’t work. It only works for the police. It’s working for the judge. It’s working the legislature. So it just leads to unrest.”
Indeed, some fear Jose Charles’s case could spark anti-police protests like ones that roiled nearby Charlotte last year.
In Greensboro, the community’s relationship with the police department is already strained after a white officer violently arrested a black man who was sitting on his mother’s porch, waiting for her to get home.
Video from that case and from the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding mentally disabled Vietnamese woman was released by the city council before HB 972 took effect.
Police were criticized in both cases. But Hightower, the council member, said she was able to tell her constituents that even when wrong, the city and its police department were transparent.
Hightower said the council will most likely petition the judge to see the Jose Charles video. In the meantime, activists are planning nearly a month of protests before the teenager’s next court date.
— Delaney Vandergrift (@delaneypv15) March 15, 2017