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City has no legitimate need to withhold video of brutal assault on prisoner

Law enforcement officials should know better by now, and release video of the brutal assault on a prisoner in the Buffalo Police Department cellblock in the basement of City Court. At a time when video recordings are ubiquitous, when they have repeatedly shown police officers abusing their authority, the public not unreasonably expects it should have the ability to see what happened here.

Worse, given the many instances in which officers on the street have attempted to confiscate citizens’ video of police misconduct, the public has cause to worry that failure to turn it over is evidence of dubious intent by its guardians. This should be an easy decision.

Buffalo police are refusing to release several jailhouse videos of the assault at the request of U.S. Attorney William C. Hochul Jr. and with the approval of Mayor Byron W. Brown. The argument is that prosecutors want to preserve the right to a fair trial of the defendant, former senior cellblock attendant Matthew Jaskula. Indeed, that right needs to be preserved, but release of the video won’t compromise it.

The attack in which the 26-year-old civilian employee is charged was shocking, even given what Americans have seen on surreptitiously recorded videos in other cases. According to police, the videos show that on May 19, Jaskula grabbed a handcuffed and compliant prisoner, Shaun F. Porter, and slammed him face-first into a steel door, forcing it open. He fell, or was dropped, and struck his face on the ledge of a shelf before falling face-first onto the floor.

This treatment was evidently in retaliation for Porter having had the temerity to ask for a lawyer. The beating wasn’t over.

Porter had become limp and unresponsive, investigators said, but nevertheless, Jaskula dragged him down a hallway to an open cell, striking his head a third time, on the cell’s door frame. Finally, Jaskula placed the profusely bleeding victim in a restraint chair used for uncooperative prisoners and left him without medical care for more than an hour. Then, police say, he lied to his superiors about Porter’s injuries.

This information is already in the public domain, where it belongs. Releasing the video will do nothing more than to corroborate it. A state official who is an expert on public access to information agrees that the videos can legitimately be made public. “The public has the right to be aware of the conduct of government employees, particularly when an employee is the subject of criminal charges,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

If prosecutors or defense attorneys are worried about prejudicing potential jurors – something they are obligated to consider – they should relax. Jury selection is meant to overcome any such problems.

What is more, although courts are reluctant to grant changes of venue to other jurisdictions, that remains a legitimate option where it is necessary. In any case, it is a better option than denying the public the right to see what happened in the jail they pay to staff and maintain.

And there is another reason the public should have the ability to see this video promptly. The two police officers who brought Porter to the jail, Joshua T. Craig and Anthony J. D’Agostino, did nothing to stop the blood-curdling assault. The video is reported to show Craig laughing and D’Agostino seeming shocked as Jaskula assaults a helpless, handcuffed prisoner. Both officers have been suspended without pay. U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. has declined to say if the officers will be charged with a crime, but the public also has a right to know how their police officers respond when they are observing a criminal assault in progress.

This video, concealed, is a tick burrowing into the skin. It will cause inflammation, infection and distrust. The way to avoid all of these problems is to release the video. Now.