A federal judge today denied a request to release body camera footage of a Montgomery police dog biting and killing Joseph Pettaway — but she did not rule out making the public footage later.
Chief US District Judge Emily C. Marks denied a motion filed by attorneys for Pettaway’s family, which asked her to remove the confidentiality designation from the videos.
Pettaway, a 51-year-old Black man, bled to death after a police dog bit his thigh and tore his femoral artery inside a mostly empty house in Montgomery in 2018. Police said they got a call about a possible burglary, although Pettaway’s family says he had been helping fix up the small home and sometimes slip there.
Pettaway’s family is suing the city and several police officers, including the K-9 handler, Nicholas Barber, alleging excessive force, wrongful death and failure to provide medical aid. The family says they want the public to see the videos showing what happened when the city police dog named Niko fatally bit Pettaway.
Despite national press coverage and the long-running lawsuit, the public still hasn’t been allowed to see the footage nearly four years later. The videos are currently filed under seal in the lawsuit because of a protective order preventing their release to the public.
[Read our series Mauled: When police dogs are weapons]
Attorneys for the city have successfully beat back multiple requests from the family and the press to make the footage public. They argued in court that releasing the video could jeopardize police safety, and the violent footage could end up “facilitating civil unrest.” The city also argued the release would affect police privacy, causing “annoyance, embarrassment” for officers who were acting in good faith.
Griffin Sikes, a Montgomery rights attorney representing the Pett family, said that neither the city nor the police have any valid claims for keeping the public from seeing the footage, made by public officers using taxpayer-funded equipment while public business.
“The United States Courts are the people’s courts,” Sikes said at a hearing in federal court in Montgomery on Wednesday, pointing out the footage is the central evidence in the lawsuit.
Early in the morning on July 8, 2018, police said they got a call about a person inside a house on Cresta Circle in Montgomery and believed Pettaway was a burglary suspect. In an affidavit, police said they believed he was a “serious and imminent danger.”
But family members say Pettaway had a key and permission to sleep in the house.
It took two years for the family’s lawyers to see the bodycam video. After obtaining copies, the lawyers described the footage in a court filing, saying the bite lasted nearly two minutes and the handler struggled to get the dog off Pettaway.
The handler testedified in a deposition that he had to choke the dog until it could not breathe and was nearly unconscious in order to get Niko to let go of Pettaway’s groin.
Pettaway bled as police dragged him out of the house and onto the sidewalk to wait for an ambulance, according to the timeline in the lawsuit. He died at the hospital.
[Read more: Police dog bites are an ugly secret in Alabama]
About five minutes after the bite ended, the timeline says, another officer outside asked Barber, “Did ya’ get a bite?” Barber responded, “Sure did, heh, heh (chuckling).” The officer asked: “Are you serious?” Barber replied. “F**k yeah.”
AL.com is also seeking release of the video, pointing out the public’s interest in the footage in a written request to Judge Marks. The judge has not responded to the request and did not mention it in her order today.
“In the nearly four years since Mr. Pettaway’s death, public tax dollars have funded the defense of the litigation resulting from that fatal encounter, yet the public footage has been kept from seeing the police officers acting on the public’s behalf,” the AL.com request states. “The video footage will show the public what happened.”
Judge Marks denied the family’s motion without prejudice and noted that they can refile at a later date.
The judge appeared to suggest in her order, and during a court hearing on Wednesday, that she will be more open to consideration of releasing the videos after the plaintiffs and defendants in the lawsuit complete depositions and file their final motions for summary judgment later this year .
[Read more: Alabama police already shielded bodycams. Now they know they don’t have to show the public.]