As Body Cameras Become Commonplace, a Debate Over When to Release the Footage
The question of timing has become an unsettled new frontier of policymaking as the use of police body cameras is more the rule rather than the exception.
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — Ma’Khia Bryant had been dead only a few hours when the authorities in Columbus, Ohio, released body camera footage from the police officer who had shot and killed her.
Andrew Brown Jr. was killed by sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City, N.C., nearly two weeks ago, and it could be many more weeks — or even months — before video of his death is publicly shown.
As body-worn cameras have become more commonplace, and public pressure on officials to take police accountability more seriously has mounted, so too have demands to quickly release the footage of violent or fatal encounters between law enforcement officers and citizens. A video can mean the difference between drawing attention or dying in obscurity.
But it is not always that easy. While more police chiefs and mayors have recently made ad hoc decisions to quickly release videos of high-profile incidents, activists and lawmakers in some states are pushing for faster public access. That has made the question of timing an important and unsettled new frontier of policymaking as the use of body cameras among law enforcement in the United States becomes the rule rather than the exception.
As of 2018, at least 23 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws related to the public disclosure of body-worn camera footage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and many states are considering measures this year. Few states consider body-worn camera footage exempt from public records requests, although most states have passed various exemptions associated with the disclosure — from who is allowed to view the video to the time frame in which it must be released.
In Ohio, body-worn camera footage is generally subject to public disclosure, and any authority figure can choose to release it at any time. In North Carolina, a court order is required, even if the person requesting the footage is the head of a law enforcement agency. By first requiring a judge’s approval to release body camera footage through blanketed, statewide legislation, North Carolina is an outlier, said Daniel Lawrence, a researcher at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C. But it is not the only state where recordings are not considered open records under the law. South Carolina and Kansas treat such videos similarly — a troubling fact for civil libertarians and proponents of open government.
“The beneficiary of the body camera video is intended to be the public at large,” said Chad A. Marlow, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “From that philosophical position, the idea then is that to promote transparency the public should have a right to view the footage.”
But even in states that require public disclosure, it is often up to the police or elected officials to decide how quickly that happens.
The day after Daunte Wright was fatally shot by a police officer at a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on April 11, in the midst of the murder trial against the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, officials opted to quickly release some of the body camera footage. The video shows the officer, who has since resigned and has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, shouting, “Taser,” suggesting she mistook one weapon for another. The swift release, which was not required by law, came after a night of particularly intense demonstrations, in which the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets.
When Ms. Bryant, 16, who according to the body-camera video was wielding a knife and had threatened two girls, was fatally shot by an officer in Columbus on April 20, the Columbus Division of Police released video about five hours later, as protesters gathered at the scene.
“We wanted to get that out as soon as possible,” said Michael Woods, the interim police chief of Columbus, even though he was not required by law to quickly do so.
Before North Carolina passed its body-camera law in 2016, law enforcement agencies in the state operated by their own rules. But the killing of Mr. Brown, who like Ms. Bryant and Mr. Wright was Black, has renewed calls to change the law.
“I think it should be a public record,” said Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat of North Carolina, referring to the body camera footage. “And there should be a date certain by when the public knows that they will have access to it. And the burden should be on law enforcement to go to the court to seek a temporary stay for investigative purposes.”
This week, State Representative Amos Quick, a Democrat, filed a bill in the state House that would force law enforcement agencies to release body camera recordings within 48 hours, and give police departments a chance to go before a judge to argue that the release would, among other things, jeopardize someone’s safety or hinder an investigation. (A similar bill is pending in the State Senate.)
As of 2016, about 80 percent of all police departments with more than 500 officers had implemented body cameras, according to Justice Department data, most after a spate of police killings and in-custody deaths of Black people.
When agencies first began using body cameras, there was not a big push for transparency so it was easier to keep the footage “under wraps,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a policing expert and professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.
Research on the effects of body cameras so far has come to varied conclusions.
In a yearlong study in New York, research found that body-worn cameras led to a higher reporting of questionable stops that have fueled accusations of racial bias and harassment against the New York Police Department, enabling more transparency into police activity. The research also found that the body cameras had no significant effect on arrests or officers’ use of force.
Another study of more than 2,000 police officers in Washington said that body-worn cameras had little effect on police behavior.
The fate of the pending measure in North Carolina is uncertain in the Republican-controlled state legislature. But a number of other states, among them California, Colorado, Utah and Wisconsin, changed their laws to favor greater disclosure after 2014, when a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, unleashing waves of protest.
The episode was not captured by a body camera, because the officer, Darren Wilson, did not have one. Mr. Wilson was investigated for the slaying, but not charged.
Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington who has studied body-camera policies, said that a number of states still had problematic laws on the books that overextend exceptions to public disclosure. Louisiana, for example, gives too much power to the police to withhold footage for privacy reasons, she said. And Oregon exempts footage from public disclosure unless it is in the “public interest” — a “squishy, amorphous” standard, Ms. Fan said.
At the same time, some big cities have been moving to set new standards on the release of body-camera videos.
Since 2018, Los Angeles Police officers have been required, with some exceptions, to release within 45 days footage of “critical incidents,” including those in which the use of force resulted in death. A state law that went into effect the following year required all California departments to release such footage within the same required time frame.
Last summer, in the aftermath of the killing of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis, New York City began requiring similar disclosure of videos within 30 days; and Washington, D.C., set the deadline at five days.
In Philadelphia, officials publicly released body-camera footage in October — the first time the city’s police department had ever done so — nine days after two police officers fatally shot a Black man, Walter Wallace Jr., who officials said was holding a knife and had a history of mental illness.
Chicago, too, has had a significant change in the way it manages police video since its handling of the case of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was shot by a white officer 16 times in October 2014. It took more than a year for the dashboard camera video of that shooting to be released, a delay caused by city officials who insisted that the video was part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The officer became the city’s first patrolman in almost 50 years to be convicted of murder and was sentenced to just shy of seven years in prison.
These days in Chicago, the footage comes faster. When Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old from the West Side, was fatally shot by a police officer in March, an independent city agency that investigates shootings initially resisted the release of the video, citing his age. But the agency eventually released the footage 17 days after his death. And it took about four weeks for the city to make public video of the March 31 police shooting of Anthony Alvarez, a 22-year-old who was fleeing officers while holding a gun.
Concerns that an immediate release of footage might hinder an investigation or threaten the safety or privacy rights of officers or others remain. In North Carolina, Judge Jeff Foster cited these concerns in delaying the release of footage of Mr. Brown's death. And in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department’s union tried, unsuccessfully, to block part of an emergency legislation on the grounds that it put officers at risk.
But police departments have other things to worry about these days as well, said Donald M. Craven, a media lawyer in Springfield, Ill. Body-camera footage is not always the only video evidence of excessive force or killings.
“If Minnesota taught us anything, it’s not just the police officers who have cameras,” he said, referring to the video taken by a teenage girl of Mr. Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer, pleading for his life. “To some extent, there’s additional pressure on police departments to release the video that they have before they get hit with the video they don’t have.”