by Jordan Green
Winston-Salem city officials want the public to see videotape of the arrest of Travis Page, who died in police custody, but the district attorney is blocking the release. If the prosecutor determines the tape holds no evidentiary value, city officials might take a different view from their counterparts in Greensboro, who have argued that video in a similar case is protected as a personnel record.
The death of a 31-year-old black man in police custody in Winston-Salem last week has local officials scrambling to maintain public trust amidst a national climate of frayed relations between police and the black communities.
City Manager Lee Garrity said that he, Mayor Allen Joines and several other members of city council have asked Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill to review police video of the incident and release it as soon as possible.
“I think the public needs to know what happened,” Garrity said on Monday. “This is a national issue; there was just an incident in LA yesterday. We believe in transparency.”
Responding to a shots fired call at 4404 Old Rural Hall Road at 7:28 p.m. on Dec. 9, the police said an officer deployed pepper spray after a brief struggle ensued with Travis Nevelle Page. Once the police gained control and placed him in handcuffs, Page became unresponsive. The department reported that officers initiated life-saving efforts and requested emergency medical services. Page was declared dead when he arrived at Baptist Hospital.
The police said they seized a handgun and a controlled substance during Page’s arrest.
Cpl. Robert Fenimore, Officer Christopher Doub, Officer Austin Conrad and Officer Jacob Tuttle have been placed on administrative duty — standard procedure whenever a death in custody or officer-involved shooting occurs — while the State Bureau of Investigation investigates the case.
O’Neill warned City Attorney Angela Carmon in a Dec. 10 email that he would not permit the video to be released, adding that his objection is shared by the lawyer assigned to represent at least one of the officers involved in the incident. O’Neill cited prosecutorial rules under state law, which prevent law enforcement agents from making “extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.” He added that releasing the video “may more specifically be viewed as interfering with an ongoing investigation and tampering with evidence that is the property of this office.”
O’Neill concluded, “There is no doubt that the courts would agree that the evidence contained on the Axon cameras from last night’s in-custody death investigation, belongs to the prosecutor’s office, and it would similarly be protected for the benefit of any defendant, if in fact, any criminal charges arose. I hope that it will not be necessary for the state of North Carolina, the lawyers currently representing the officers, and the people of this state that we represent from filing an order with the court sealing the evidence, but this this office has and always will protect the integrity of an investigation and the right for the accused to have a fair trial.”
Noting that the SBI investigation could take weeks or months considering the time required for a toxicology report, Garrity said he hopes the video can be released before then, adding, “The sooner the better.” Garrity said O’Neill has spoken with Mayor Joines “and committed to try to move it as quickly as possible.”
As demands from community leaders for transparency have mounted in Winston-Salem, discussion has centered on whether release of the video would compromise the ongoing investigation as opposed to whether the police might shield it as a personnel record.
Garrity and Carmon indicated they were familiar with the case of Chieu-di Thi Vo, a 47-year-old Vietnamese woman who was killed by a police officer in Greensboro in March 2014. In that case, Greensboro police and city officials refused to release the video even after Officer Timothy Bloch was cleared of wrongdoing, claiming that it was protected as a personnel record.
“I know Greensboro has argued that,” Carmon said. “I have not formulated a definitive opinion on that.
“I would look at some of the companion cities,” she added, “and look at once they’ve gotten over the evidentiary issue, whether it’s considered a personnel record.”