Judge won’t release body camera from fatal Alabama police dog attack

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A federal judge today denied a request to release body camera footage of a Montgomery police dog biting and killing Joseph Pettaway – but she did not rule out releasing the footage later.

U.S. District Chief Judge Emily C. Marks denied a motion filed by attorneys for Pettaway’s family, asking her to remove the videos’ confidentiality designation.

Pettaway, a 51-year-old black man, bled to death after a police dog bit his thigh and tore his femoral artery inside a nearly empty house in Montgomery in 2018. Police say they received a call about a possible burglary, although Pettaway’s family say he had helped fix the small house and sometimes slept there.

Pettaway’s family is suing the city and several police officers, including K-9 handler Nicholas Barber, alleging excessive force, wrongful death and failure to provide medical aid. The family say they want the public to see the videos showing what happened when the city police dog named Niko fatally bit Pettaway.

Despite national media coverage and the long-running lawsuit, the public has still not been allowed to see the footage nearly four years later. The videos are currently filed under seal in the lawsuit due to a protective order preventing their release to the public.

[Read our series Mauled: When police dogs are weapons]

City attorneys successfully fended off multiple requests from the family and the press to release the footage. They argued in court that releasing the video could compromise police safety and that the violent footage could end up “facilitating civil unrest”. The city also argued that the release would affect police privacy, causing “annoyance, embarrassment” to officers who were acting in good faith.

Griffin Sikes, a Montgomery civil rights attorney representing the Pettaway family, said neither the city nor the police have any valid claims to block the public from viewing the footage, taken by public officials using equipment funded by the taxpayers while conducting public business.

“The courts of the United States are the people’s courts,” Sikes said during a hearing in federal court in Montgomery on Wednesday, noting that the footage is the central evidence in the trial.

In the early morning hours of July 8, 2018, police said they received a call about someone inside a Cresta Circle home in Montgomery and believed Pettaway to be a burglary suspect. In an affidavit, police said they believed he posed a “grave and imminent danger”.

But family members say Pettaway had a key and permission to sleep in the house.

It took two years for the family’s attorneys to see the body camera video. After obtaining copies, attorneys described the footage in a court filing, saying the bite lasted nearly two minutes and the dog handler struggled to get the dog out of Pettaway.

The dog handler testified in a deposition that he had to choke the dog until he could not breathe and was nearly unconscious in order for Niko to let go of Pettaway’s groin.

Pettaway bled as police dragged him out of the house and onto the sidewalk to wait for an ambulance, according to the trial timeline. He died in hospital.

[Read more: Police dog bites are an ugly secret in Alabama]

About five minutes after the bite ended, according to the timeline, another officer outside asked Barber, “Did you bite?” Barber replied, “Sure, heh, heh (laughs).” The officer asked, “Are you serious?” Barbier replied “Fuck yeah.”

AL.com also calls for the release of the video, noting the public’s interest in the footage in a written request to Judge Marks. The judge did not respond to the request and did not mention it in her order today.

“In the nearly four years since Mr. Pettaway’s death, taxpayers’ money has funded the defense of the litigation arising from that fatal encounter, but the public has been prevented from seeing the footage of police officers acting on behalf of the public”, the AL.com request says. “The video footage will show the public what happened.”

Judge Marks denied the family’s motion without prejudice and noted that they could file a new case at a later date.

The judge appeared to suggest in her order, and during a court hearing on Wednesday, that she would be more open to releasing the videos after the plaintiffs and defendants in the lawsuit complete their depositions and file their statements. final motions for summary judgment later this year. .

[Read more: Alabama police already shielded bodycams. Now they know they don’t have to show the public.]

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