By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
The mother of a 19-year-old man who was killed during a confrontation with police last year is on a mission to make law enforcement body camera footage more available to the public under Colorado law.
Susan Holmes said she had to wait more than four months to see video of the July 1, 2017, fatal shooting of her son, Jeremy, near the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins. She is frustrated the public still doesn’t have access to footage that she believes provides important context about the tragedy and the mental health crisis Jeremy was going through.
“It is psychological and emotional torture to not know how your child really died,” Holmes told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “…The only thing that kept me alive during this period was my need to find out and then clear Jeremy’s name.”
Working with a Denver lawyer, Holmes recently finished drafting legislation that she calls the “Jeremy Holmes Act.” Now she is trying to find a state lawmaker to champion the proposal, which addresses the disclosure of body-worn camera video and audio when a law enforcement officer’s use of force results in death.
To ensure “transparency and accountability,” her measure would require the release of footage within five days of a public records request, allowing for some redaction to obscure the faces of witnesses and bystanders. “The disclosure of body camera footage in this type of incident provides oversight where strong public interest outweighs any privacy concerns,” it states.
Such a requirement, if enacted, would be a major departure from how state law currently treats the public release of body-worn camera footage. While not specifically addressed in the statutes, disclosure is governed by the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act and judicial opinions applying the CCJRA. The act gives law enforcement agencies discretion to withhold criminal justice records such as body-cam footage if they determine that disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest.”
In making that determination, an agency must weigh factors such as the privacy of individuals, the public interest in allowing inspection of the records and the agency’s interest in pursuing ongoing investigations without compromising them.
As with Jeremy Holmes’ case, it sometimes takes months for footage of fatalities to be released – or the footage may not be released at all. After gang member Andrew Byrd was shot and killed by Pueblo police in February 2017, the department waited nine months to disclose the video. According to CBS4, the Elbert County sheriff refuses to release body-cam footage of events leading to the death of Matt Poer. He died in April after being shocked by a deputy’s Taser.
Eighth Judicial District Attorney Clifford Riedel cleared the two officers who fatally shot Jeremy Holmes, a high school honors student who had enrolled at Front Range Community College. Redacted footage, released in November 2017, shows that one of the officers repeatedly asked him to drop a hunting knife before he charged toward the officer and was fatally shot. According to the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Jeremy can be heard telling police that he won’t drop the knife and that he wants to die.
Jeremy, Riedel’s report says, had earlier told a relative he was going to kill his brother and sister-in-law. Riedel wrote that Holmes “made a deliberate attempt” to stab the officer, who “showed amazing restraint in not utilizing lawful deadly force earlier in the confrontation.” The officer was attempting to pull his Taser “in a last ditch effort to avoid shooting Jeremy Holmes” when Holmes charged.
Susan Holmes said her son “wasn’t processing any information properly” because of a bad reaction to THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, and that officers could have done more to calm the situation. She said a Coloradoan reporter heard something on the video that she didn’t catch – Jeremy saying that he would drop the knife only if he received immunity.
To Holmes, that bit of audio “means he tried to save himself and wasn’t heard” and it demonstrates why journalists and the public need timely access to police body-cam footage that hasn’t been edited. “The public can review the tape a lot more than the family can,” she said. “They can listen over and over again because they’re not emotionally involved.”
Susan Holmes also wants police to release footage from an officer who spoke with Jeremy’s brother just before the shooting and then ran to the scene after she heard a scream. “That video tells the real story of what went on,” she said.
A CSU police spokesperson, addressing why it has been withheld, told Westword that the officer responded “after weapons were fired.” The spokesperson added that Susan Holmes was given the opportunity to view unredacted footage from the campus officer and a Fort Collins officer who interacted with Jeremy.
If Colorado enacts legislation, it would join 20 other states and the District of Columbia that have either passed or proposed bills on public access to body-cam footage, according to the Urban Institute. Most allow various exemptions, unlike Susan Holmes’ proposal.
California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill that will require police departments to release audio and video footage of shootings and other serious use-of-force incidents within 45 days. Hailed by advocates for police transparency and police accountability, the new law isn’t ideal, Holmes told CFOIC, because of the discretion it affords agencies if an investigation is ongoing.
Note: This article has been updated to include details from the district attorney’s report on the shooting.
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