A newspaper’s secret is at the heart of a police beating that has gone nationwide

A North Carolina police beating captured on a bodycam video, of an African-American man walking home after a 13-hour dishwashing shift at Cracker Barrel, has prompted charges against one former police officer, an FBI investigation and outrage within the community — and now — nationally.

Who leaked that bodycam video to the Citizen Times newspaper? The Asheville, North Carolina, newspaper is not saying much. The city government reporter “obtained the video from a source,” says the paper’s news director, Katie Wadington.

Before the newspaper’s release on Feb. 28 of that video, showing Officer Chris Hickman tasering and beating Johnnie Jermaine Rush, the state’s investigative unit expressed little interest in pursuing the case from Aug. 25, says Casey Blake, the paper’s community engagement editor.

The video showed Hickman and a trainee stopped Rush for jaywalking. Rush is heard saying: “All I’m trying to do is go home, man. I’m tired!” The video then shows Hickman tasering Rush, choking him, beating his skull.

Under North Carolina law, bodycam video is not considered a public record.

Before the video’s release, the public did not know about the incident six months earlier, nor did people know the police chief had reviewed the bodycam video the day after the incident. The public did not know the police chief quietly oversaw an internal investigation and was about to fire the officer when he quit in January. Nor that charges against Rush, disproven by the bodycam video, were dropped.

The district attorney initially said he would be investigating the leak. Then came the public outrage.

The mayor and City Council said they did not know of the incident before the video emerged. The police chief offered to quit. On Wednesday, the FBI launched a criminal investigation. On Thursday, the officer, Hickman, was arrested and charged with felony assault by strangulation, as well as misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats, the newspaper’s Joel Burgess reported.

“We are aware of at least three other incidents where Hickman had some questionable conduct,” says Blake. She added that Hickman, 31, was once a detective, but was back on uniform duty the night of the beating.

The paper has pointed out that hundreds of people jaywalk along the stretch of road in which Rush was stopped because it’s near a minor league baseball stadium.

Blake characterizes Rush, the victim, as “an incredibly humble gracious man.” The victim did give the newspaper photographs of himself he said were taken after the beating.

Of the story, which was picked up by the New York Times and other national outlets, Blake says: “It’s a big one for us and it’s still developing.”

She says the paper has gotten copy editing and production help from a fellow Gannett paper in Greenville, S.C. It also plans editorials on a broader, but not indiscriminate, release of bodycam evidence to the public. Quoting one of the paper’s columnists, Blake says: “What is the point of bodycams if they are only used to exonerate police?”

If the release of bodycam video becomes more prevalent, maybe the secret at the heart of this police beating won’t have to be secret much longer.

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