BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — Backed by the NAACP and ACLU, the parents of the young black man whom Alabama police shot to death in a shopping mall on Thanksgiving said concerns for officer safety are no reason to withhold video footage and the name of the officer who fired the deadly shots.
“Plaintiffs have a statutory right to the public writings they see, and there is no legal basis for the defendants’ failure to disclose them,” Emantic Bradford Sr. and April Pipkin say in the Monday complaint in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
Emantic Bradford Jr., 21, was shot from behind on Nov. 22, 2018, by police responding to a call of shots fired at a Hoover, Ala., shopping mall, mistaking him for the shooter.
The Alabama chapters of the NAACP and ACLU on Feb. 20 filed a request for records from the Hoover Police Department and the Attorney General of Alabama. They hope the disclosure of video footage — including video collected from police body cameras — and other will help answer questions about the death, which immediately drew criticism as another example of police violence against young black men.
Questions include: How did Bradford act seconds before he was shot? Did Hoover police officers comply with the law in doing so? And who killed E.J. Bradford?
But one of the most pressing questions is: Why did the attorney general take the investigation of the officers away from the local district attorney — the first black district attorney in Jefferson County history — in a move not seen in Alabama since the 1950s?
In early March both law enforcement agencies denied broad portions of the request for records, saying that metadata of the videos was not subject to public disclosure, the records were “investigative records,” and police officers would be put at risk.
According to the complaint, the Office of the Alabama Attorney General sent a letter to the plaintiffs on March 1, stating: “This Office understands that threats of physical harm, including death, have been made against Hoover police officers regarding this incident.”
The plaintiffs say that explanation is insufficient.
“The Office of the Attorney General of Alabama, as well as the government of the City of Hoover, derives its legitimacy from being both democratically elected and subject to constitutional and statutory limits on its power,” the complaint states. “Public access to the records requested by Plaintiffs is an important part of that accountability to the public. In the wake of the police killing of E.J. Bradford, which has amplified the fear and mistrust that many black and brown Alabamians feel toward the police, such transparency and accountability is especially important.”
Named as defendants are Attorney General Steve Marshall and Hoover Police Chief Nicholas Derzis, in their official capacities. The plaintiffs want to see the records.
Both law enforcement agencies said Monday that they will respond to the lawsuit.
Hoover city spokeswoman Melanie Posey said in a statement: “The Attorney General has stated that most of the records requested, including all of the requested videos, are not subject to disclosure due to an ongoing criminal investigation and/or prosecution of Erron Brown. The City of Hoover will not produce any records that could compromise the ongoing criminal investigation or put the safety of the City’s police officers at risk.”
Police believe Brown fired the shots at the mall to which they were responded.
The Attorney General’s Office said in a Feb. 5 report that “Officer 1” had broken no criminal law, and that his actions were justified in an active shooter situation.
The 26-page report states that the incident began when Brown shot Brian Wilson inside the Riverchase Galleria mall the evening of Nov. 22 as shoppers were getting an early start on Black Friday shopping.
As people scattered, Bradford pulled out his handgun, a 9mm Glock 19, and started running toward the first shooting. He was trying to protect bystanders, the ACLU said.
That’s when an officer behind Bradford fired three times and killed him.
A video from a security camera shows the handgun sliding across the white tile after Bradford fell.
Attorney General Marshall said in the report that he would not submit criminal charges to a grand jury.
In their Feb. 20 request for records, the plaintiffs sought all the records, files and correspondence that the attorney general used in creating his report and his decision to not prosecute the two responding officers.
“We’re wondering why Steve Marshall, the attorney general of Alabama, took this case out of the hands of the first black district attorney in Jefferson County,” Brock Boone, an attorney for ACLU of Alabama told Courthouse News.
Boone said law enforcement agencies face a high standard to overcome to keep records from the public eye.
“The burden will be on the government, and in this case the attorney general and Hoover Police Department, to explain exactly why they are not going to release these records,” he said.
Noel Isama, senior policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, said government entities in Alabama often hide records by claiming broad exemptions to the state’s open record law, a law he says does not have many of the features that states with commitments to transparency have.
In the past few years, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on government transparency, has seen more requests for records surrounding police incidents. Often, that transparency uncovers patterns of abuse, Isama said.
“There’s an increased demand for accountability in situations like this,” Isama added. “And one of the features of that is disclosure around those involved, within reason of course.”
Suits to obtain records, Isama said, are often last-ditch efforts that lead to lopsided fights against government resources.
“It shouldn’t have to get to the point where someone has to sue to get a particular record like this,” he said.