48 Investigates: UAH refuses to share body camera footage of traffic stop involving 17-year-old honor student

Updated: Oct. 30, 2020 at 6:38 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - 48 Investigates keeps requesting public records after a high school senior said he was verbally abused during a routine traffic stop by University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) campus police.

On October 3rd, Hazel Green High School honor roll student, Caleb Crutcher, was pulled over by campus police for a cracked, but functioning, taillight.

Caleb said the officer told him to get out of the car and accused him of having drugs and a dead prostitute in his car.

UAH’s President Darren Dawson later apologized and promised better transparency between the university and the police department moving forward.

However, when our Kate Smith asked multiple times to get a copy of the body camera video, it was repeatedly denied by the university.

We have asked not once, not twice, but three times to have the video released under public records law. We involved our station attorney and we were denied again. This all coming from a University that’s motto is transparency.

It has been 27 days since UAH Campus Police pulled over 17-year-old Caleb Crutcher. The Crutcher family still doesn’t know the name of the officer or if any disciplinary actions were taken. They have seen the body camera footage but do not have a copy of it.

48 News sent two open records requests to the university for the video. They were denied.

UAH Spokeswoman Elizabeth Gibisch said our requests were denied because under Alabama law, video is not considered a public record and the university, which is a public institution, is not required to release the video.

Gibisch’s email said, "I am in receipt of your request of October 22, 2020, in which you seek “body camera and any dash camera video” of a traffic stop on October 3, 2020. Pursuant to Alabama law, your request is denied. Law enforcement recordings are not public records. See Alabama Code § 12-21-3.1(b)."

Our corporate attorneys sent a letter to the university acknowledging videos are not required to be distributed to the media, but it is the right thing for UAH to do.

In the letter our attorney said, "in issuing his formal apology to Caleb and his family, President Dawson expressly committed to “Increase Accountability and Transparency” in the UAH Police Department and pledged to take steps that would “ensure transparency.”

We explained by withholding the video recording of the interaction, that has been the subject of legitimate public discussion and concern, is directly at odds with the president’s pledge.

Michael P. Huff with University of Alabama’s System emailed us saying, “As Chief University Counsel for The University of Alabama in Huntsville, I am in receipt of your October 23, 2020, correspondence to Elizabeth Gibisch concerning WAFF-TV’s request for UAH police body-worn camera footage of a traffic stop on October 3, 2020. I appreciate your acknowledgement that the police recording in question does not constitute a public record under Alabama law. Pursuant thereto, UAH will not produce the requested recording.”

We filed another open records request, this time asking for a word-for-word transcript of the interaction between UAH police and Caleb Crutcher.

An email from Gibisch said, "I am in receipt of your October 28, 2020, request seeking a copy of the “transcripts” of interactions during a traffic stop on October 3, 2020. Law enforcement records, notes, reports, statements and other investigative writings or recordings are not public records. See Alabama Code § 12-21-3.1(b). Nevertheless, UAH has no documents responsive to your request."

According to MuckRock, an online news source that provides tools to hold the government accountable, Alabama open record laws are some of the strictest in the country. In other states, body camera footage is often released to the public.

For example, in June The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga released body camera footage after one of their campus police officers was accused of racially profiling someone they pulled over. And in Georgia, the Atlanta Police Department released footage of two officers pulling people out of vehicles during the civil unrest this summer.

Our request to sit down with the university president was denied. And multiple requests to speak with the chief of police went unanswered.

We have also requested the personnel files for all of UAH’s police officers and we are still waiting to hear back if the university will release those documents.

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