By Chad Nance
“I want to be clear. The City has called for the release of the footage.”
City Councilman James Taylor (Chairman of the Public Safety Committee)
Winston-Salem stands at a precipice. It has been years since we have faced this kind of community challenge. On December 9th, Winston-Salem resident Travis Page died after being handcuffed by four WSPD officers. Only those who were there that night can definitively tell us what happened. Investigators with the SBI and the State Medical examiner’s office and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office remain involved in the investigation. Due to professional ethics rules, they have not, at this time, released any of the evidence, including information gleaned from the autopsy, toxicology, or the video files from the three body cameras worn by officers. (One of the officers was a trainee and per WSPD policy did not wear a body cam on the night of Page’s death.)
While it is a fact that the City of Winston-Salem and the WSPD do have their own copies of the body cam video, they do not have the authority to release this to the public. That authority rests with District Attorney Jim O’Neill. For his part , Mr. O’Neill has indicated that he is unable to do so because of North Carolina State Bar professional rules which do not allow a supervising prosecutor to make what are termed “extrajudicial statements”. This means prosecutors are prohibited from releasing statements or evidence outside of a court proceeding.
Jim O’Neil refusal to release the video is based on North Carolina State Bar rules that read in part:
“Rule 3.6… prohibits extrajudicial statements that have a substantial likelihood of prejudicing an adjudicatory proceeding. In the context of a criminal prosecution, a prosecutor’s extrajudicial statement can create the additional problem of increasing public condemnation of the accused. Although the announcement of an indictment, for example, will necessarily have severe consequences for the accused, a prosecutor can, and should, avoid comments which have no legitimate law enforcement purpose and have a substantial likelihood of increasing public opprobrium of the accused.”
CCD spoke to a representative of the NC State Bar, as well as several local criminal attorneys and they agreed with Mr. O’Neill’s assessment of these professional rules and responsibilities. Not only could the District Attorney face personal sanction or admonition, he could place at risk his law license, although the attorneys we spoke with said that this result was unlikely and the penalty would be no more than a sanction or censure.
The NC State Bar is not a professional organization that makes recommendations. It is not a “Bar Association”. Attorneys practicing in North Carolina are required to be members of the State Bar and its rules are enforceable like those of any other state professional regulatory agency.
The criminal attorneys did comment that the release of the body cam video, if considered by a judge to be a violation of the professional rules, would give any defense ammunition to demand a change of venue or even possibly have the body cam evidence stricken during a possible trial. Nothing is simple about this situation and according to legal experts some elements of “transparency” in this particular investigation could put at risk any eventual prosecution.
One attorney said that there is a possible way around for the D.A., stating “Someone could sue Mr. O’Niell and then he could comply with an order from a Superior Court judge. That would also put him in compliance with the State Bar rules.”
At a press conference called Friday afternoon by the Minister’s Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity (Joined by Councilman Taylor and Sen. Earline Parmon), community and church leaders called for calm, reason, and transparency while the investigation of the death of Travis Page remains ongoing. Specifically, they are joining City officials in asking for the results of the autopsy and the body cam video files to be made public. The SBI Special Agent in Charge, Scott Williams, has indicated that the full autopsy results, including critical toxicology tests, may not be available for several months. This apparent delay however does line up with the reputation of the State Medical Examiner’s office and the fact that a single lab does the blood analysis and toxicology statewide.
Rev. Alvin Carlyle opened Friday’s press conference stating that the Minister’s Conference is “Pressing our leaders to recommend to Jim O’Neill to the release the body camera footage.” He expressed the Minister’s Conference support and prayers for Page’s family, since no matter what is finally learned about the events of December 9th, his family has suffered a painful loss.
Minister’s Conference president Bishop Todd Fulton pointed out that the Minister’s Conference represents 50 multicultural churches in Winston-Salem and speaks for a large segment of the community. “We do not want what has happened across this country to happen here,” Bishop Fulton stated, referring to civil unrest following incidents of police violence and lethal force against African American males that have gained more public notice because citizen journalism made possible by the proliferation of social media and the availability of inexpensive, video recording cell phones.
Bishop Fulton was unequivocal regarding the Minister’s Conference request. They are not making or passing any judgement at this time. They simply want to see the video evidence in the hopes that it will give some indication as to what happened, whether it exonerates the officers or Page. “The criminal justice system works the same for the officers as it does for Mr. Page,” Fulton said. He went on to point out that the Minister’s Conference is only asking for transparency and has no direct dispute with the WSPD. “There is not enough information to take issue with,” he stated.
Reverend John Mendez spoke of the upwardly trending number of police violence cases that have come to controversial light in the last few years, stating, “I think the tone has been set. We are not that blind to the trends that have taken place. The anxieties and fears of this community reflect the fears around the country.” Reverend Mendez pointed out that the community’s experience with the WSPD has been a “Mixed bag”. He reminded reporters of the Darryl Hunt and Kalvin Michael Smith cases and how those investigations and prosecutions involved direct cover-ups, evidence tampering, and profound secrecy on the part of authorities. “The bottom line is, we don’t know. We don’t want to speculate. We want the facts. Facts are stubborn things… Our experience is there have been cover ups and distortions. That’s why we are pressing so hard for information,” said Rev. Mendez. “There is no witch hunt here. Just a push for information.”
City Councilman James Taylor was also in attendance and reiterated his call for the release of the tapes and told reporters that he, Derwin Montgomery, and Mayor Allen Joines are all in agreement that they would like to see D.A. Jim O’Neill release the body cam footage. On Friday Councilman Taylor posted the following on facebook:
“As Chairman of Public Safety, I have already met with the people of the community, the Ministers Conference, Police Administration, the Mayor, the City Manager, the media, and some members of the Winston-Salem City Council. We stand united in calling for the release of the police footage from the District Attorney as quickly as possible. I encourage the community not to rush to judgement, and to wait until all of the facts have been released. We have the best officers in the country and the best citizens in the country. We are working, we are waiting, and we will be watching. This will be handled correctly.”
The Minister’s Conference has contacted the District Attorney’s office and is seeking to have an in person meeting with him on Tuesday, December 15th. (The results of this meeting will be provided when available.)
Councilman Dan Besse added his support for the release of footage in a facebook post made on Saturday:
“I join with my city council colleagues in sorrow and sympathy for the family of Travis Page, and for the Winston-Salem police officers who experienced his to all appearances accidental death during the arrest process. I also join in the call for transparency and rapid public release of body cam video and 911 recordings associated with the incident. We have no reason to believe that doing so would impede or compromise the thorough and professional investigation of the incident… Based on the information which has been provided to city council members at this time, I have no reason to believe that our officers acted other than professionally and with due care. Especially in light of legitimate public concerns raised by problem cases from other cities around the nation, our District Attorney should use his sound discretion to release as much information as possible sooner rather than later. As attorneys, we should keep in mind that one of our professional responsibilities is to ‘further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.’ (From the Preamble to the NC Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.)”
What do we know for sure regarding the death of Travis Page? Very little. Here is what we know from authorities* and public record:
- At approximately 7:28pm on December 9th the WSPD received a 911 call reporting shots fired at the Family Dollar location on Rural Hall Rd.
- The person who called in the complaint described a suspect fitting Travis Page’s description.
- The suspect was described as being six-feet, four-inches tall, heavy set, and wearing a blue shirt and dark shorts.
- Responding officers were 20 year veteran, Corporal Robert Fenimore, 22 year veteran Officer Christopher Doub, 3 year veteran Officer Austin Conrad and trainee Officer Jacob Tuttle.
- Officers found Page a short distance from the Family Dollar. According to the WSPD he ran when police approached.
- According to an officer on the scene recorded in a citizen video (Taken sometime after the confrontation and the arrival of Forsyth County EMS, but before Page had been taken to the hospital) Page was running away from police when he fell.
- According to police, Page ingested a controlled substance at this time. The particular substance that he allegedly ingested has not been identified at this time.
- The WSPD’s report indicates that Page resisted arrest and the officers had to use pepper spray on him. The officer who administered they spray has not been identified.
- Officers have indicated that once Page was handcuffed he became “Unresponsive”.
- According to the police report, the responding officers and Forsyth County EMS attempted to use life-saving measures to revive Page. They have not been specific about what these measures entailed.
- Officers claim that they found a gun and controlled substances on Page before he was taken to the hospital.
- Travis Page was pronounced dead at the hospital.
- According to public records Travis Page did have a criminal history that included assault on a police officer and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon while on probation.
- Page’s mother told local media that her son had a variety of medical conditions including bronchitis and gout. Travis Page’s medical records are protected by HIPPA laws and that information must be considered anecdotal at this time.
- The SBI is now handling the investigation into the death of Travis Page and the officers have been placed on administrative duty as is common procedure in these kinds of cases.
- WSPD’s Lt. Catrina Thompson has stated publicly that the body cam footage will not “Embarrass Winston-Salem.”
This is all that is currently known as fact in this matter. Until the investigators release information or until a verified eyewitness comes forward, this will be all that we do know.
There are gaps and questions in the known facts. What, exactly happened when officers caught up with Page? Was Page put into any sort of restrictive hold? Did officers apply life-saving measures correctly and with full vigor? How much or how little will the body camera evidence tell us right away? All of these questions and others will be answered with a thorough investigation. While we all may want a quick and definitive resolution to this tragedy, there simply may be no easy answers. Seeking justice does not always require only speed, but also thoughtfulness and dedication.
Any untimely death is a tragedy, for the dead, their family, and the community at large. Hopefully this tragedy will not compound itself through a rush to judgement or adoption of conspiracy theories founded on little information. The truth must be discovered, however, so that our community can seek justice and move on and heal.
As Rev. Mendez stated at the press conference Friday, “Let’s keep this alive and keep this on the top of the agenda because what affects one, affects us all.”
*CCD is choosing not to use any information regarding this incident given to us from sources who were not direct witnesses the the events that occurred on Rural Hall Road on the night of December 9th. Any other comments, including those of Page’s family and friends, are anecdotal. Giving the community sensitivity and the importance to the Winston-Salem community regarding the outcome of the investigation, we have chosen to be as methodical and possible considering the implications of this case.