City requests court consider whether to release audio of racist conversations among officers

City asks court to release WPD video

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Legal counsel for the city of Wilmington filed a request in New Hanover County Superior Court Tuesday to have a judge review and consider whether racist conversations among three Wilmington Police Department officers should be released to the public.

The conversations, which were recorded on an in-car camera of a patrol car, were the basis for the terminations of Officer James Gilmore, Cpl. Jesse Moore II, and Officer Kevin Piner last week. A review of the footage showed two conversations between Piner and Gilmore, and Piner and Moore that contained “disrespectful language, hate-filled speech, and referring to black people as the ‘n-word.’”

The city released written portions of the conversations last week, but not the audio or video.

In a statement Tuesday, a city spokesperson said of the request to the court: “We are filing a petition in which we will ask the Court to review whether or not some or all of the video in this case should be released. The law requires that a judge make that determination and we will support the judiciary by bringing the matter before the Court and supplying any information or other documents that Court may desire.”

That petition was served upon WPD Chief Donny Williams and District Attorney Ben David, as well as the three officers. It was also served upon attorney Michael McGuinness, who is representing Piner and Moore.

The court is expected to set a hearing date to consider this request.

According to Brooks Fuller of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, it’s unusual for a city government to make this kind of request — almost as unusual as a law enforcement agency releasing the footage without a court order.

That’s because that kind of video is not a public record under North Carolina law.

“There’s a lot of layers here and it represents a lot of hurdles for the public to ultimately see body cam video or dashcam video, unless the law enforcement agency decides to release it on their own, which is really uncommon,” he said. “The more common response, at least in North Carolina, is to wait and go through all of the procedural hurdles and challenges that it would take to get a video like this.”

Fuller said the ongoing debate over police brutality and racism underscores the need for the public to be able to see what goes on with law enforcement.

“The most important reason to have videos of law enforcement activity is to hold law enforcement accountable in all types of contexts. That includes during arrests during detentions during searches, and then in cases [like] this video to see how police officers are interacting with one another, vis a vis the public, and how they relate to the public,” he said.

When announcing the termination of the three officers, Chief Williams and Mayor Bill Saffo said transparency about the event and the investigation were important to the department and the city.

Fuller applauded that openness.

“Having more records of how the police interact with the folks who they’re policing and protecting is always the goal,” he said, “it’s not to hide that behind some sort of shroud, but to make sure that the public really understands what those relationships are like. If they are good, healthy relationships, that’s helpful information. If they’re toxic, dangerous relationships, that’s useful information. And so we tend to think that more disclosure of these relationships is better.”

Copyright 2020 WECT. All rights reserved.