Judge orders city of Mobile to release body camera video of 2016 pepper spray incident at the Loop

The painted cannon in 2016. (Facebook Photo: McGill-Toolen Football team)

The city of Mobile said it will release police body camera video of a controversial incident in 2016, one day after a judge ordered the video be made public.

In a written statement to FOX10 News, a city spokesperson said the city will produce "all videos related to the incident" in question.

The incident happened on September 2, 2016, in which a group of McGill-Toolen High School students were pepper-sprayed by a Mobile Police Officer while they were painting the cannon at the Loop on Government Street after their big football victory against Murphy High School, a decades-old tradition.

At the time, police said the students were blocking traffic, so police were dispatched to the scene.

However, police said an officer sprayed students without first giving proper warning, prompting the police chief at the time to apologize for what happened.

Despite the apology, the police department refused to release the officer's body camera video from the incident, which would give the public a clear picture of what took place.

Months later, in 2017, Meredith Corporation, the owner of WALA FOX10 News, on behalf of its local journalists, filed suit against the city seeking release of the video, because FOX10 News believed the public has a right to see body camera videos that are paid for with tax dollars.

Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Rick Stout issued a ruling Monday, August 13, ordering for the city of Mobile to release the video to FOX10 News within 14 days.

The ruling came with stipulations, however, indicating the city must blur the faces of any juveniles depicted in the video, and FOX10 News must pay for city officials to do so.

Judge Stout also said the order should not set a precedent for all body camera videos to be released. Instead, Judge Stout said each body camera video request should be assessed individually, with the public records statute in mind.

Judge Stout also indicated in the ruling that because the pepper spray video does not apply to an ongoing criminal investigation, and it is not a part of any juvenile criminal proceeding, the video is a public record.

Mobile City Council Member CJ Small said he was glad to see the judge's decision.

"The citizens pay for the body cams through tax money, and so it is transparency to see exactly what's going on," said Small.

City spokesperson Laura Byrne released the following statement Tuesday, August 14, about the issue:

"In 2016, one Mobile Police Department (MPD) officer deployed pepper spray to disperse the crowd after the “Battle of the Cannon”. That particular year, it was more disorderly because of unusually large crowds disrupting traffic. An automatic internal investigation is conducted anytime pepper spray is used. It was determined that the officer failed to follow procedure when using pepper spray during the incident, and he was disciplined for his actions. The Mobile Police Department has since worked closely with McGill-Toolen Catholic High School to prevent a similar incident from occurring. The body camera footage from the incident was not immediately released, because it was considered evidence and involved minors and a potential criminal prosecution. That type of evidence involving minors cannot be made public. The City sought the Attorney General’s opinion on releasing the footage, because the law has not caught up with technology. There is no Alabama case law that directly discusses body camera videos. Per the judge’s ruling, the City (will) produce all videos related to the incident. We are still blurring the faces of all minors in the video. Thank you."

All content © 2018, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.


Investigative Reporter

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