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In apparent violation of a Superior Court judge’s order, neither the Graham Police Department nor the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office handed over video recordings to a coalition of news media organizations on Friday.
The delay extends a monthslong saga in the attempt to make public law enforcement videos of the I Am Change march on Oct. 31, in which the law enforcement agencies deployed pepper spray at least three times against protesters marching to the polls.
In January, the News & Observer petitioned the court for law enforcement video related to the incident. Several other news organizations, including Carolina Public Press, later joined the petition for release.
On June 15, Judge Andrew Hanford ordered the release of the footage by 2 p.m. Friday, June 25. When a reporter from the coalition went to collect the footage, no video was produced.
“Under the circumstances, it’s unclear why neither (city nor county) has complied with the court’s order requiring release of the recordings last Friday,” said Mike Tadych, the attorney representing the media coalition.
The law firm representing the Graham Police Department filed a notice of appeal on June 16 and requested a stay of the court’s order on June 22.
When asked why the agency did not produce video, Anthony Biller, the attorney representing the Graham Police Department, pointed to the motion for a stay and said a hearing on the request is not yet scheduled. Alamance County representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
On Friday, after missing the deadline to produce videos, the lawyer for Alamance County, Ben Pierce, notified counsel for the media coalition that the county intended to join Graham’s request for a stay, pending the appeal. As of Monday evening, the county had not filed any request for a stay.
This is an unusual legal strategy, according to Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University.
“It’s pretty uncommon for a government agency to just sit on its hand and indicate that it wants to file something but not file something,” Fuller said.
The county is “needlessly delaying” filing motions with the court, Fuller said, creating an uncommon problem where a government agency neither complies with a court order nor moves swiftly through court processes to appeal it.
The parties are now weighing next steps, including scheduling a hearing, likely in early July to address the issue.
Judges can decide to hold parties who do not follow judicial orders in contempt, which could result in either fines or jail time.
The media coalition is seeking public release of the videos to answer questions about why the law enforcement agencies used pepper spray to disperse the protesters.
Though several people uploaded cellphone videos of the march and the police response to the internet, those videos do not show the moments leading up to Graham police declaring the protest an unlawful assembly and using pepper spray.
Statements from the Graham police, including that they only directed pepper spray to the ground, were quickly contradicted by photo evidence, and their characterization of the events has been widely disputed by protesters.
The city and county have already agreed to pay $60,000 each to settle one federal lawsuit alleging the law enforcement actions amounted to voter suppression, and another remains ongoing.
The district attorney has dismissed all charges against the agencies’ highest-profile arrestees from the event, including Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski, two Democratic election observers and the Rev. Greg Drumwright, who organized the march to the polls. Most of the dismissals cited a lack of evidence supporting the charges.
I hope the judge does hold the non-responsive officials in contempt. It would do them (and the state) good to have the police chief, sheriff, City Council president or Mayor, and city attorney thrown into ICE holding facilities, along with other “non-Americans,” for a few months until they comply.
Arrest and jail all parties responsible for not producing the video till video is produced.