Several groups are pressing for the release of police body cam video from last week's fatal police shooting in Winooski, Vermont, saying transparency and public trust in law enforcement are at risk.
On the afternoon of Sept. 16, Winooski resident Jesse Beshaw was shot and killed by a deputy sheriff. Beshaw, who had an active arrest warrant pending for burglary and unlawful mischief and misdemeanor offenses, was known by police to carry a handgun. He ran away from police after leaving a house they had surrounded. According to the Vermont State Police, Franklin County Sheriff Department Deputy Nicolas Palmier chased him and the body cam shows Beshaw stopping as the officer approaches from a distance.
Police say verbal commands are shouted but Beshaw reportedly ignores them and then advances toward Deputy Palmier with his right hand concealed behind his back. Palmier then shoots Beshaw, who was declared dead at the scene. The preliminary autopsy results showed six gunshot wounds to the torso and a seventh that grazed the head. The preliminary investigation also indicates that Beshaw was not armed at the time of the shooting.
The video has not been released and its description comes from the state police.
The New England First Amendment Coalition is pushing Vermont law enforcement officials to make the video immediately available to the public. Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman says the goal is transparency and assurance that law enforcement is working in the public interest. “Particularly in the national climate that we have now with the additional scrutiny on police shootings we believe that it was of particular importance to have this footage released so the public would have a better understanding of the shooting, what occurred, how the police responded, and be able to determine whether or not law enforcement acted appropriately.”
The Burlington Free Press has formally requested the footage. According a Tuesday article, the request was denied due to the ongoing investigation and is therefore exempt from disclosure. The paper will appeal. Silverman calls that a common reason, but while exempt, police are not required to withhold it. “There’s no way to know how long the investigation’s going to occur. And the goal here isn’t to find any wrongdoing on behalf of the police department necessarily, it’s to just find out what happened.”
The ACLU of Vermont echoes and supports the New England First Amendment Coalition’s concerns. Staff Attorney Lia Ernst believes there would be no harm in releasing the information. “Right now is when people have the most questions about what happened in this case. But right now people aren’t getting the full picture and complete information about what happened. I understand the impulse to think well why don’t we just wait until the investigation is completed. But at this point the police have interviewed the witnesses. They’ve viewed this footage. There’s no harm to the investigation that would come of releasing it and making it public in a way that’s transparent and serves the interest of accountability and public trust.”
A spokesman for the Vermont State Police told WAMC that any decision to release the body cam video would come from the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s office, which is also involved in the investigation. Calls to that office were not returned in time for broadcast. In published reports, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan said the footage would be released when the Vermont State Police concludes its investigation.