Transparency Group Calls On Cops To Release Footage Of Fatal Police Shooting

Sep 21, 2016

A transparency group is calling on authorities to release body camera footage from a fatal police shooting last week amid questions and controversy about the death of 29-year-old Winooski resident Jesse Beshaw.

Behind the O'Brien Community Center in Winooski, friends and family of Jesse Beshaw have made the site of his death into a makeshift memorial.

Candles and flowers sit on the bloodstained blacktop where Beshaw fell after he was shot seven times by a Franklin County Sheriff's deputy.

Ziplock bags hanging from a nearby fence protect photos of Beshaw smiling and playing with kids.

But what happened in the final moments of his life still hasn't been fully explained by police, and the New England First Amendment Coalition is calling on authorities to release body camera footage of the incident so the public gets an objective view of what happened.

Mike Donoghue is the vice president of the organization, and he says police regularly release footage during investigations.

“When there's a bank robbery, when there's assaults, when there's store burglaries, they're frequently turning over video that's going to be, quote, ‘evidence,'" Donoghue says.

All police have said about Friday's shooting is that Beshaw was unarmed when he led police on a foot chase, then approached an officer with his hand behind his back.

But as in other cases in Vermont when a cop shoots someone, authorities are not yet releasing footage of the incident.

"The critical issue here is: What is the proper time to release this type of footage? I think it's after the investigation is done." - TJ Donovan, Chittenden County State's Attorney

“The critical issue here is: What is the proper time to release this type of footage?” says TJ Donovan, the Chittenden County State's Attorney. “I think it's after the investigation is done. Now, let's make sure we have a swift investigation, but the integrity of the investigation is paramount.”

Donovan says that means the public has to wait about two weeks for Vermont State Police to finish their investigation into the shooting, then another week for his office to decide whether the officer involved was justified in using deadly force.

But he also acknowledges Donoghue's point that cops are inconsistent about releasing video footage as part of an investigation.

It's fairly typical for police to share security footage from robberies, for example, before they've closed the case.

“Well, it shouldn't be different, and I frankly agree with him,” Donovan says. “I think what is needed here are some clear guidelines when this information can be released.”

Bullets police fired at Jesse Beshaw struck a nearby dumpster, which is now part of the makeshift memorial at the site of the shooting.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

But Donovan insists that footage of this particular incident needs to wait until the investigation is complete. He says it's important for the public to hear the context of the situation and not just see what happened.

“Why did the police respond to the house? If there were arrest warrants, what were they issued for? What information did the police have in terms of this individual? All that information provides context in which these decisions are made,” Donovan says.

"Why is it that they take so long to come out with information instead of being right up front with the public and the taxpayers who pay these police officers?" - Mike Donoghue, New England First Amendment Coalition

But Donoghue doesn't buy the argument that releasing footage would compromise the investigation.

He pointed out that police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot and killed a man within hours of the Winooski shooting, and they've already released footage of that incident despite an ongoing criminal investigation.

“Why is Vermont so special that they don't want the public to know what's going on?” Donoghue says. “And why is it that they take so long to come out with information instead of being right up front with the public and the taxpayers who pay these police officers?”

Donovan said he expects to announce his office's findings at a news conference next month, then he says it will be OK for the public to see what happened.

Disclosure: Reporter Taylor Dobbs was granted a fellowship in 2014 to participate in an annual training workshop hosted by the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Correction 1:27 p.m. Sept. 22, 2016 An earlier version of this story used the wrong name for the New England First Amendment Coalition.