On July 30, 2021, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office released the unaltered body camera video of the fatal shooting of Ethan Calton after Calton’s family was required to threaten District Attorney Ted Bell with contempt for previously producing a noticeably altered version of the footage.
In reviewing the video, a number of central concerns became immediately apparent:
- The officers rushed Calton without warning or identification (contrary to Bell’s statement that the officers identified themselves immediately upon approaching Calton);
- The video footage demonstrably refutes the public statements of Sheriff Chris Francis in that Calton did not “brandish” a firearm that was pointed at the officers (Calton’s back remained to the officers at all times);
- The video footage demonstrably refutes the public statement of District Attorney Ted Bell that the firearm “flew from [Calton’s] hand” as he spun 180 degrees (the footage plainly shows that the black blurb identified by Bell as the firearm was already laying on the ground as Calton was shot in the back and falls to his knees with his left arm tucked between his legs and his right arm resting by his body); and
- Calton faced away from all three the officers who were all a safe distance behind him, with Calton’s back squared flush to them prior to Deputy Tyler Greene firing one fatal shot into his back.
For nearly six (6) months Sheriff Francis made claims that Calton pulled his weapon and pointed it at the officers on the scene, all the while refusing to speak with Calton’s family or show them the footage of the incident.
Likewise, Bell issued a detailed public statement claiming that the body camera footage showed that Calton pointed a gun at Deputy Tyler Greene (despite the unaltered footage showing that Calton was, at all times, facing away from the officers), Deputy Dylan Henderson, and Homeland Security Agent Joseph Magilton and that Calton grasped his firearm until being shot by Deputy Tyler Greene, at which point Bell stated that the gun “flew from his hand” as Calton spun 180 degrees. As the unaltered video now shows, Bell’s statement is directly contradicted by the actual video footage.
Whether the statements made by Francis and Bell were intentionally misleading, based on inaccurate information relayed from the officers, or otherwise, several issues have become clear throughout this process.
First, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office has failed to enforce its policy requiring all deputies to wear and utilize body cameras in accordance with the Sheriff’s Office’s applicable policies, i.e., requiring the activation of a deputy’s body camera when engaging in any law enforcement interactions with the public, which would have likely prevented months of public outrage and the lingering questions as to what transpired.
When asked by multiple media outlets why Deputy Henderson failed to wear and activate his body camera, Sheriff Francis refused to provide any comments or explanation. Sheriff Francis has also refused to disclose whether Deputy Henderson has been (or will be) subjected any disciplinary actions for failing to comply with that policy that has resulted in widespread public distrust involving the officers involved, Francis, and Bell.
Second, both Sheriff Francis and Bell’s refusal to allow the family to privately view the body camera footage caused needless suffering to the family and widened the distrust between our law enforcement institutions and the community. There is no justification for any family to endure this situation again and it is now incumbent upon the public to ensure it does not.
Third, and most significantly, the refusal of both Sheriff Francis and Bell to respond to the community with explanations, answers, evidence, or, in fact, any information whatsoever (even after Bell formally announced that he would not be pressing charges) has cast the District Attorney’s Office and (unfairly) all members of the Sheriff’s Office in a negative light, further adding to the distrust between our institutions and the community.
In their roles as the Sheriff and District Attorney, Francis and Bell assumed the responsibility of answering to their constituents, as well as defending their employees when warranted. Despite the public outcry regarding Calton’s death, however, Francis and Bell have refused to respond to the public except through various statements that the unaltered video has now shown to be false. These issues have created serious doubts as to the candor of both Francis and Bell and inflicted significant damage to the public’s confidence in the local legal system.
With the recent release of the unaltered video, the community can now render their own decisions as to whether Calton’s death was justified. However, after the false narratives promoted by both Francis and Bell, the delay in affording Calton’s family and the public ability to review the body camera footage that refuted those narratives, and Bell’s refusal to comply with the Court’s order to release the unaltered video until being threatened with contempt, Bell’s assertion that the shooting was justified remains overshadowed by a cloud of distrust and suspicion that can only be dispelled through an independent prosecutorial review.