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When should police departments release BWC footage to the public?

Policy for the release of footage isn’t necessarily one-size-fits all, but the public does expect to see it, and PDs need to craft their BWC policy accordingly


Few forces are impacting law enforcement like video. Policing in the Video Age, P1's yearlong special editorial focus on video in law enforcement, aims to address all facets of the topic with expanded analysis and reporting.

In the third installment of this four-part signature coverage effort, we address training & policy in a recorded world. Click here to learn more about the project.

Navigating the complexity of BWCs is a challenge police departments continue to face. If you’re in need of BWC training for your department, PoliceOne Academy has several online courses available, including “How to Implement a BWC Program.” Start your path to becoming an expert by visiting PoliceOneAcademy.com and submitting a request to learn more.

As an increasing number of police departments adopt body-worn cameras, a thorny issue agencies are grappling with is the release of video footage to the public. As the technology has become more widespread, departments that previously criticized the cameras have come to understand and embrace the utility of the tech from an evidentiary standpoint, as well as from a public relations perspective.  At the same time, some states and police departments have made moves that limit the amount of access the public has to these videos. All of this leads to the question of who, exactly, the technology is intended to serve.

The answer, of course, is that body cameras should serve both civilians and law enforcement. Given that the public’s call to outfit police departments with the technology increased in the wake of Ferguson, it is important to remember that civilians view the technology primarily as a tool for transparency, regardless of evidentiary or other benefits the cameras offer law enforcement agencies. If police departments withhold footage, the public is likely to interpret this as betraying the point of the cameras.

In this Nov. 27, 2015, file photo, protesters take part in a "march for justice" in Chicago, in the wake of the release of video showing an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
In this Nov. 27, 2015, file photo, protesters take part in a "march for justice" in Chicago, in the wake of the release of video showing an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

LEARNING FROM THE LAQUAN MCDONALD SHOOTING VIDEO

The uproar over the delay in the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, which spurred the city of Chicago to implement a 90-day policy for the release of shooting footage, underscores the importance of timely release of video – particularly in the case of officer-involved shootings.

“What you saw in Chicago with the Laquan McDonald case is this extended period of time when they didn’t release the video and I think that simply worked against them,” said Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). “It eroded public trust. It’s as though you have evidence that you don’t want anyone to know about – that’s how it comes off.”

Given differences in state laws, there isn’t a consistent national policy for the release of body-worn camera footage, and police department policy isn’t necessarily one-size-fits all. What is true, no matter what jurisdiction you’re in, is this: In the video age, the public expects to see footage of police activity and PDs need to construct their BWC policy accordingly.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the NYPD recently made headlines for releasing footage of a fatal officer-involved shooting captured on its body cameras for the first time since the agency rolled out its program earlier this year. Police Commissioner James O'Neill made this decision despite some opposition from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark.

“By adopting body worn cameras, a police department is saying: we believe the incident that happened is a matter of public record and we’re gonna share that video,” Wexler said. “New York simply said, ‘Transparency is more important than the prosecution or disagreements.’ New York’s decision will have an enormous impact on American policing. You’re going to see more of this where the objective will be, ‘You know what? It is what it is, we need to get it out.’”

A NUMBER OF APPROACHES TO PUBLIC RELEASE OF FOOTAGE

While it’s unclear how the NYPD proceeds from here, the move was just the latest high-profile example of larger law enforcement agencies embracing a model of transparency while trying to manage the balance between protecting evidence and privacy and addressing the public’s desire to view these videos.

The Las Vegas Metro PD allows the public and those in media to view footage in a private room at the department while a law enforcement employee is present.  A fee of $50 per hour is charged for any footage that needs to be redacted. Video that is part of a criminal or internal investigation isn’t released until the matter is resolved. Requests can be mailed or filled out online. Different rules for viewing video apply depending on which group a requester falls under: media, involved citizens, or the public.

In San Diego County, the policy for the release of officer-involved shooting videos requires the district attorney to first review the shooting and present its findings to the police agency involved before releasing the footage. If criminal charges are filed, the video is not released. Privacy, due process and public safety concerns are also taken into account before the footage goes out to the public. The policy also requires that any release be accompanied by a news conference and the results of the DA’s review of the incident.

The Seattle Police Department, which made headlines in 2015 for setting up a YouTube channel featuring heavily redacted video of all activity captured on the agency’s BWCs, has a 72-hour policy for the release of “representative and relevant” samples of officer-involved shooting videos, with an exception for evidence that may compromise an investigation. The department does not release the subject’s criminal history along with the video unless required by law or if it was relevant to the incident and known to the involved officers at the time of the shooting.

TAKE IT SLOW

No matter what model an agency uses to develop its public release policy, the most important step is to have a policy in place before body-worn cameras are deployed.

“You need to sit down with all the stakeholders, whether it’s prosecutors, the community or the unions,” Wexler said. “That’s what we did in terms of developing the [PERF] policy – it was a collaborative effort. Our recommendation was for a broad disclosure policy. What makes it complicated is you do have different states and different union agreements, and different prosecutorial relationships. It is best to deal with these variables before as opposed to after. Some cities are so enthusiastic about getting those cameras out there that they don’t really take the time to bring in all of the stakeholders to talk things through.”

In addition to looking at other agency models, PERF’s guide to body-worn cameras and IACP's model policy continue to be one of the best starting points for a police department crafting a policy on the public release of video.

“As we said when we wrote the guidelines, any police department that implements body-worn cameras should do it with the realization that the statement they’re making is: what the police are doing is a matter of public record,” Wexler said. “By videotaping it, the department is de facto giving out the message that they will release that information. Because, otherwise, why have body-worn cameras if you’re not going to release the video?”

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