Judge denies petition to release controversial video of fired WPD officers

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — A judge has decided to deny the petition to release car camera footage involving three fired Wilmington police officers.

The City of Wilmington petitioned for the release of the video.

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Police say two videos from a patrol car’s camera show the men making racist or derogatory comments toward African Americans.

Officers Michael Piner, Jesse Moore II, and James Gilmore were fired in June.

Gilmore filed an appeal with the city for reinstatement.

An attorney for two of the former officers, city leaders, and a judge met behind closed doors prior to a two-hour hearing Thursday morning.

During the hearing, Judge Josh Willey heard from both sides.

Assistant City Attorney Daniel Thurston began his argument with telling the judge the City of Wilmington has a “vested interest” in being transparent. While the city has been on the other side of petitions filed to release content in the past, Thurston says they’ve never been the party to file the petition.

Thurston called the language heard in the two videos caught on a WPD patrol car camera “disgusting”, saying “Something bad has occurred. No doubt about it.”

Thurston argued the best thing to do to help restore public confidence and be transparent is to release the videos.

He acknowledged concerns about these former officers’ safety if the videos are released, but argued releasing the video would help protect the safety of the hundreds of other officers in the community by showing the city isn’t trying to hide anything from the public.

On the other side of the courtroom, attorney Michael McGuinness asked the judge to rule against releasing the video. McGuinness represents Kevin Piner and Jesse Moore.

McGuinness says there is a declared war on the police community nationwide. He, too, calls the language heard in the videos “horrible, heinous and appalling”.

“The comments were extremely regrettable,” McGuinness said. “They arose out of very stressful, very unusual circumstances They’re not excusable. We’re not saying that. As you noted, I didn’t go in and try to sugarcoat those comments and say they weren’t so bad. In fact, you heard what the expert said, you heard my position. That’s our position. they judge agreed.”

McGuinness says the language reportedly used by these men grew out of severe frustration about actions towards law enforcement officers nationwide.

He argued, if the videos are released, it will travel around the country, and could provoke violent protests.

McGuinness references the murder of George Floyd and protests that sparked around the country including here in Wilmington. He says the former officers made their mistakes, however there was criminal violence happening on the streets of Wilmington.

McGuinness also called in “expert witness” John Combs, who has been in been in law enforcement for the last 33 years.

Combs also calls the language heard in the videos “the worst I’ve ever heard as a police officer and citizen”. He says there is no reason related to law enforcement for the videos to be released, because the men were fired.

Combs says the video is so inflammatory, it would result in violence, and not only the former officers, but the Wilmington Police Department would “most certainly” be subject to retaliation.”

Since the three men were fired, he says there is no reason related to law enforcement for the videos to be released. Combs added, if officers can’t do their jobs without a risk to their safety, it becomes an overall public safety issue.

In response, Thurston questioned Combs about safety concerns throughout the city over the last few months.

Thurston referenced several of the racist comments made by the former officers in the video, asking if Combs considered those “fighting words”, to which Combs responded “yes”.

Thurston argued, there haven’t been any State of Emergency declarations or curfews related to protests surrounding George Floyd’s death since the transcript from the videos were released. He said the city has appeared to be peaceful over the last two months since the transcript was released at the end of June, implying the city could handle the release of the videos themselves.

McGuinness responded to Thurston statements, by showing several photos of damage to a Wilmington Police car, and damage to several businesses during the protest in May and June.

McGuinness questioned what good would come from releasing the videos, saying there release could easily spark protests not only in Wilmington, but potentially around the nation.

“One spark can ignite it again, and the spark is on that tape,” McGuinness said.

He also said the men and their families have received death threats since the transcripts of their conversations were released.

Judge Willey viewed the two videos prior to Thursday’s hearing.

After taking a two hour recess to review the documents provided by both sides, Willey ultimately ruled to block the release of the video. Willey also denounced the language and comments the men made, saying “the fact they would say these things, shows they lack discretion to serve in law enforcement.

He commended the city and WPD for firing the three men, and their handling of the situation. Willey said the transparency is already there in the transcript and other documents released to the public.

“The cancer they represented in the police department is being cut out,” Willey said.

Willey went through a number of other criteria he evaluated in making his decision, saying it’s tough to say how big the risk of retaliatory violence is if the videos were released, but said there is definitely some risk of danger to law enforcement and the citizens.

He adds, they are much more inflammatory when you hear the tone and inflection used.

McGuinness says he thinks the judge made the “absolutely correct” decision.

“These were tragic mistakes that were made by good people,” McGuinness said. “They did the right thing and accepted responsibility, and moved on. We really hope there can be healing. there’s plenty of room to explore ways to try to improve policing and improve community relations, and I hope there will be a good faith effort by folks to do that.”

Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams released a statement regarding the judge’s decision.

“We petitioned the court to release this video in an effort to be transparent, however, we understand and support the judge’s decision.

As I said in my statement on June 24: Please do not judge our agency based on the conduct of a few. We have great officers who go above and beyond to do what’s right, and I proudly stand with them and beside them. 

We are all hurt by this incident. We are all angry. Let this be an opportunity for us to come together as a community and heal. We will be stronger for it.”