As police reform remains at the top of the nation’s to-do list, the subject of body camera footage and policies governing the release of that footage to the public has come under scrutiny.
Upon first glance, it is clear that there is no clear-cut rule for when the footage must be released. In cases reviewed, footage from the Columbus Police Department was released in under 5 hours; in North Carolina, releasing the footage requires legal authorization by court order; while in New York, it has taken the department months to release footage.
According to a KTLA 5 report, the timing of a footage’s release really depends on the case.
For instance, in Honolulu, the release of bodycam footage is up to police discretion. While police are still withholding footage of the shooting of a 16-year-old boy, they released footage of a 29-year-old within two days. The police department cited the reason for the discrepancy being that there were juveniles involved in the former shooting – a justification that was questioned by an oversight board that suggested the police blur the faces of the individuals involved.
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, described the confusing labyrinth of nationwide bodycam footage release policies.
“It’s all over the board. A lot of it has to do with state laws. A lot of it has to do with previous litigation.”
Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, have a deadline (for New York it’s 30 days; LA is 45) for releasing footage. According to KTLA 5, the police chief or commissioner may release the footage earlier if it’s deemed to be “in the public interest.”
However, in North Carolina, because bodycam footage is not considered a public record, agencies are not required to release footage. Instead, the media must request the release, which requires a court order.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, the department does not have body cameras. Despite over 80% of decently sized departments nationwide (with over 500 officers) having body cameras, Portland is one of the few big cities that has yet to equip its officers with the technology. City leaders cite a lack of funds as the reason for the lack of cameras.
There are myriad reasons why agencies may be hesitant to release footage. One reason, already mentioned, could be to avoid negative scrutiny. However, University of Missouri St. Louis Criminal Justice professor and former police officer David Klinger explained that releasing evidence to the public – whether it’s body camera footage, dashcam footage or a 911 call – could jeopardize the integrity of investigations into officer misconduct.
Releasing a video before officers or witnesses have been interviewed or all evidence has been collected could give a defense lawyer an opportunity to challenge any disciplinary action or criminal charges and get the case dismissed.
Footage may also skew the public’s opinions when they view the footage out of context or misinterpret it. “You get to see a very, very small amount of the information, and then you form an opinion on it, and it may or may not be accurate,” Alpert said.
Some departments, like the Columbus Police Department, are not holding back. They see the rapid release of footage to the community as boosting transparency and accountability.
Following the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said it was “critically important” to release the footage to the public.
“We all knew there were a lot of things being said and shared out in the community that may or may not have been consistent with what we have seen with our own eyes here,” Ginther said. “In times of crisis, it’s very important to be as transparent and as responsive as possible.”
Columbus, which adopted the technology back in 2015, also released footage of the shooting of Andre Hill.
The national Fraternal Order of Police praised the city’s quick action in a statement, calling it “a demonstration of what police transparency looks like — getting the facts out before the narrative can be distorted or disinformation takes hold in a community.”
It remains to be seen how local and state governments will deal with this issue going forward.