It has now been nearly four months since officers of the Auburn Police Division shot and killed a young mother by the name of Melissa Boarts in Macon County, Alabama. Melissa was only 36, and her family said she suffered from mental illness.
Police said she charged them with a weapon. The family said that weapon was a small pocket knife she kept in her car.
It's time for the Auburn Police Division to release video footage of that shooting.
This editorial will be the second time we have called on the City of Auburn's police leadership, City Council members, Mayor Bill Ham and City Manager Charlie Duggan to release any footage of Melissa's death.
If there is nothing to hide, then the city should not delay releasing the footage any longer.
It is imperative for government functions here in Auburn to be transparent, as they should anywhere, so the public can review and hold officials accountable for their actions.
We've seen — in Chicago with Laquan McDonald, Cleveland with Tamir Rice, and more recently in Baton Rouge with Alton Sterling and Minnesota with Philando Castile — how it is possible for officers' accounts of a shooting and the actual video footage of those shootings to diverge.
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Melissa's mother, Terry, who called the police herself, deserves closure. Terry and her husband Michael deserve to know if their daughter's death was justified — or if it wasn't. As journalists, we identify with the Boarts' skepticism of taking the police divisions' words at face value.
This is the first time the division has used deadly force in nearly 40 years. Police in Auburn have a great reputation for professionalism and efficiency. We fully support our law enforcement, but we cannot support withholding this footage.
It is in the best interest of the city, the police, the family and the public to release the footage.
It is forgivable to be skeptical of the people who killed your daughter, regardless of whether or not her death was justified. On the flip side, we have faith the Boarts family would forgive police if video evidence shows the shooting was justified.
Her father himself was a correctional officer for more than 20 years.
Though it will never be possible to bring Melissa back, releasing the video footage could at least provide her family closure — one way or the other.
Last month, The Plainsman filed public records requests — Alabama's version of freedom of information act requests — with the city. We asked them again to release any dash- or body-camera footage of the shooting.
Additionally, we asked for copies of related 911 calls.
Both of those requests were denied by the city's public records officials.
Open records law in the state of Alabama — unlike many states — gives state, city, county and other municipality officials a blanket excuse to withhold dash- and body-camera footage by declaring that police “investigative reports and related investigatory material" are not public record.
"The City of Auburn cannot release any information pertaining to this case as it is still under investigation by outside law enforcement agencies," said Auburn Public Affairs Director David Dorton. "Such an investigation is routine in the case of a police involved shooting. Alabama law states in 12-21-3.1 that law enforcement investigative material is not public record."
The point of the entire body camera movement was to hold police officers accountable in their use of force. If the public can't see that footage, then what's the point.
The laws give the city an excuse, but they do not require the city to keep those tapes under lock and key. It's not a mandate; It's an excuse and only an excuse. City officials could still release the footage if they wish.
Closing the blinds only makes everyone wonder what is behind. Withholding the footage only increases skepticism; it doesn't temper it.
We completely understand the need to protect the identity and ensure the safety of the officers who responded to the Boarts' call. They are innocent until proven guilty.
We also understand the public could be angry with those officers if the footage is released. They and their families deserve privacy if and until the Macon County District Attorney decides he should purse a case.
But the people of Auburn are responsible. They are peaceful. The public can handle the footage.
Additionally, video editing software has come a long way. The city could easily blur the faces and hide the identities of the officers who shot Boarts that Sunday afternoon.
Reviewing this footage should not have to be delayed until a DA either decides to bring charges against the officers or dismisses the case.
According to the Boarts family's attorney, the State Bureau of Investigation — the agency investigating Melissa's death — has already concluded their portion of the investigation and has delivered their findings to the DA.
Officials from the Macon County District Attorney's Office said they could not confirm or deny whether or not they had received findings from the SBI, but they did confirm the existence of the case.
So, not only will the APD not talk, the SBI and the DA can't — or won't — talk either. At least we know it's in progress.
But the Boarts family should not have to wait until a grand jury is, or isn't, convened, which could be months because Macon County only calls grand juries twice a year.
If the law enforcement investigation is complete, the Auburn Police should release the footage. Nothing is stoping them.
Read all of our coverage of Melissa Boarts' death:
- UPDATE: Victim identified in officer-involved shooting
- Auburn police: Use of deadly force was justified, family disagrees
- Family demands answers
- EDITORIAL: Speak now, there is no peace
- Families continue protests against police
- Boarts family blasts City Council for inaction
- VIDEO: Boarts family press conference
- Petition to release footage of Boarts shooting reaches 44,000 signatures
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