When Alabama Police Kill, Surviving Family Can Fight Years to See Bodycam Footage.

It was early morning on July 8, 2018, when Joseph Pettaway’s family was told by a neighbor that he had been badly injured by a police dog overnight and taken to the hospital.

He’d been rehabbing a home a block away from where he lived with his mother. His sister, Nancy, set off to see what had happened at the blighted house on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama.

She came upon a grisly scene. Blood was pooled on the pavement, and police officers were hosing it down. The front door was open, and Nancy Pettaway peeked at the hallway inside. “I seen blood, like they had dragged him,” she said. “One of the police told me to get back, and I said I ain’t going nowhere, cause that’s my brother, that’s my brother’s blood, and you gotta tell me what’s going on.”

But the Montgomery police refused to give her any information and later that day confirmed to the news media only that a suspected burglar had died on the scene.

A relative who worked as a paramedic told the family he had been called to the scene that night and found officers standing over Pettaway’s body, hands cuffed behind his back. Four days after the killing, staff from the medical examiner finally confirmed it was Pettaway who was killed, listing the cause as “accidental.” They told the family someone from the police department would come by soon to talk to them. No one ever did.

“We tried to get more detail and kept asking why the dog had to kill him,” said Walter Pettaway, Joseph’s brother. “And they wasn’t giving us no information. They wasn’t talking to us.”

It was a telling sign of the wall of silence the Pettaway family says they faced in the coming years.

Five months after the killing, the officers involved were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. But it would take two years for the family to see for themselves the horror of what had really happened that night, and come to a starkly different conclusion about the officers’ culpability. The police who were there when Pettaway was killed wore body cameras that recorded what happened, but Montgomery’s department repeatedly refused to show the footage to the Pettaways, saying the video was “confidential,” and under Alabama law, the family had no right to access the video.

“They weren’t giving us nothing, cause they didn’t care,” Nancy Pettaway told ProPublica.

Over at the state capital, Juandalynn Givan, a Birmingham attorney and lawmaker in the Alabama House of Representatives, was as frustrated as Nancy Pettaway because the body-camera footage from a recent police shooting in her area was also being withheld.

“Why should any family have to wait two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, a month, a year to know why someone was shot or killed?” she said in an interview.

Alabama state Rep. Juandalynn Givan has proposed legislation to provide for the release of police bodycam video. “If you didn’t do anything, if you didn’t make a misstep, there shouldn’t be an issue. Don’t make it an issue,” she said. Credit:Alyssa Pointer for ProPublica

The killings at the hands of Alabama police set off parallel yearslong efforts by Givan and the Pettaway family to pry loose body-camera video of fatal police encounters. Five years later, those efforts have had little success. The state has created a process for families to file official requests to see the footage, but there is no guarantee they, or the public, will ever get to view it.

Showing the public what happens in police encounters was the original purpose of body cameras, introduced in the wake of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, in Ferguson, Missouri. They were the centerpiece of reforms pushed by then-President Barack Obama at the national level, as well as by elected leaders and law enforcement across the country, including in Alabama. Video from the perspective of police, it was hoped, would expose bad officers, inspire reforms in police practices and serve as a restraint against inappropriate escalations to deadly violence.

But as a series of ProPublica stories this year has shown, nearly a decade after Brown’s death, the cameras have failed to live up to that promise. More often than not, police are able to keep footage of the most violent police encounters out of public view.

In places like Alabama, that secrecy runs deepest. Alabama is among a handful of states where decisions by policymakers and judges have reduced access to body-camera footage so much that even families of the deceased are regularly barred from seeing what happened to their loved ones. To access the video, families must first navigate a maze of bureaucracy, often by petitioning a court or filing a lawsuit. And when they are successful, they often cannot share the footage with the public.

A week after Pettaway’s death, his family finally got to see his body, as they prepared for his funeral. They took pictures of the gruesome wounds the dog had left on his groin and thigh. They still had no satisfactory explanation from police about why the 53-year-old Black man was killed, and they decided it was time to find a lawyer to get answers.

His death was being investigated by both the Montgomery Police Department and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which often assists local police in examining officer-involved deaths. They interviewed witnesses and officers and reviewed the body-camera footage and other evidence. But by the end of 2018, even after a grand jury decided not to indict the officers, neither agency would share any evidence, including the body-camera footage, with the Pettaways.

The Pettaways filed a lawsuit a month later accusing the city of Montgomery, the chief of police and 15 unnamed officers of violating Pettaway’s constitutional rights. The city and the state law enforcement agency continued to refuse to share their investigative files with his family.

Four months after Pettaway’s death, police in the town of Hoover, just outside Birmingham, shot and killed Emantic “EJ” Bradford Jr., a 21-year-old Black man, at a crowded shopping mall.

Someone had opened fire and injured two people in the rush of holiday shopping. Officers saw Bradford with a gun, shot him in the back and killed him. Police officials initially said Bradford was the shooter but later changed their story. It turned out Bradford, on leave from military duty, had pulled out his licensed gun and was trying to stop what he probably thought was a mass shooting.

As police had in Montgomery, department officials in Hoover refused to allow anyone to see the footage from the officers’ body-worn cameras.

Bradford’s killing drew national attention and ignited weeks of protests calling for the release of the video. “We will have the tape made public,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at Bradford’s funeral. “We want transparency, not cover-up. Tell the whole story; tell it now.”

April Pipkins shows a photograph of her son, Emantic “EJ” Bradford Jr., who was killed by police in Hoover, Alabama, near Birmingham. Credit:AP Photo/Jay Reeves, File

Givan, the state lawmaker, was herself a frequent shopper at that mall and imagined what it was like for Bradford’s family to be kept in the dark.