Two CMPD officers who shot and killed an 18-year-old man in June will not face criminal prosecution. The Mecklenburg County District Attorney says officers Michael Bell and Garret Tryon were justified in using deadly force against Rodney Smith. Part of the evidence that helped prosecutors come to that decision was video from one of the officers body camera.
WFAE's Lisa Worf tried to get that video through a court order, but failed. She joins WFAE's Nick de la Canal now to talk about the DA's decision.
NDC: Lisa, why did the district attorney, Andrew Murray, say the officers were justified in shooting Smith?
LW: Largely, because he says Smith fired at officers. This is how the DA says the confrontation went down: Smith shot someone in the ankle on a CATS bus around 10 o'clock at night. It's clear from still photos captured by CATS that Smith had a gun and did this. The DA included them in his explanation of how he
reached the decision. Smith then got off the bus near the Walmart in the University area and began walking along North Tryon. Officer Tryon responded to the call and pulled up alongside him. The officers' transcripts lay out what happens next. They're hard to follow at times.
NDC: Those were included in the DA's materials?
LW: Yes. They're transcripts of interviews between the CMPD investigators and the officers. So officer Tryon says he approached Smith, yelling "show me your hands." He said he saw him grab something in his waistband, realized it was a gun, began backing away and yelling, "Drop the gun." At this point officer Bell says he sees Smith pointing a gun at officer Tryon. He gets out of his car. Officer Tryon says Smith fired, but he doesn't hear the gunshot. Rather, he says, he sees a flash either from the gun's muzzle or ricocheting off a car. Officer Bell fires. Then, they say Smith ran up a berm with the gun in his hand. He falls down. Officer Tryon says he seemed to raise up his hand with the gun. And so he fired a few more rounds. By this time, other officers had arrived at the scene.
NDC: How many rounds did the two officers fire?
LW: Tryon says he fired 16 and Bell 6 to 8. So altogether, at least 22 times. The DA said considering the threat, he didn't think that number of rounds was excessive. The Medical Examiner said 5 of them hit Smith.
NDC: What evidence does the DA's office have that Smith had a gun when officers approached him and actually fired it at them?
LW: There's a picture of a 9-millimeter police say they recovered from the scene. A spent shell casing recovered near Smith's body. The autopsy found a second casing in Smith's clothes that forensic testing shows was fired by the gun. Police say they found a box of ammunition in Smith's pocket too. And then there's the video.
NDC: Did you see the video?
LW: No, I didn't. Under a law that took effect October 1st, we believe we'd have to file to try to get a court order a second time to view it. But the DA included a still from officer Bell's body cam. It shows Smith with his arms holding something out in front of him. It appears to be a gun, though it's fuzzy. The DA also says you can hear officer Tryon shout, "drop the gun" on the body cam video. Both officers were wearing them and recording. Officer Bell's dash cam was also recording, but Tryon's wasn't. He said the camera's card was full and had been for at least a month.
NDC: Now, Smith's grandmother did see the video yesterday. What was her reaction?
LW: Yes, she did. Linda Woodard had wanted to see it several months ago and even said she wanted it to be released publicly. Prosecutors showed it to her yesterday after they made the decision not to prosecute the officers. Woodard said it was hard to make out what happened. It was dark. It happened so quickly. She heard shouts, gunshots, but couldn't see much.
NDC: What did she think about the DA's decision?
LW: She was upset. She thought officers may have mistaken her grandson's cell phone for a gun. The video didn't clear that up for her.
NDC: What questions do you think seeing the video would answer?
LW: It certainly looks like Smith is pointing something at Officer Tryon. You can see that in the still of Bell's body cam footage taken while he's still inside his car. We'd like to know if there's a clearer view of a gun, and also if we can hear or see it go off, since the officers' accounts of those first shots is somewhat confusing. And then there's the matter of transparency. The DA's office now accompanies its decisions about whether to prosecute officers with lengthy explanations that include some evidence from the investigation. Body and dash cam footage doesn't tell the whole story, but it can provide irreplaceable evidence.
NDC: Will that footage ever be released?
LW: I don't know. I'm going to try and get another court order to get them released. I don't think either CMPD or the district attorney's office will object now that prosecutors have decided not to pursue charges. And Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson's main concern was that releasing the video would create "a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice." But again that shouldn't be an issue now. Of course, officers Bell and Tryon may object.