When 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot and killed by two police officers in the backyard of his grandparents’ house in March 2018, the Sacramento Police Department released officer body camera footage as well as footage captured by a Sacramento sheriff’s helicopter within days of the shooting. The city has its own transparency policy that requires the release of officer video footage within 30 days of a major incident. If the footage is not going to be released within 30 days, the department has to explain why.
Sacramento is the exception, however, and not the rule. PBS reports the Associated Press recently conducted an investigation that tested the public’s ability to access police video, and what they found is that departments use various exemptions which allow them to keep videos that are part of a pending investigation under wraps.
AP notes that there are indeed some departments that voluntarily release footage of high profile incidents within days or weeks, while others do so when forced to by a civil lawsuit or a suspect going to trial.
But other departments misapply exemption rules that are meant to protect sensitive details in an investigation, including those preventing suspects from knowing they are under scrutiny or what evidence law enforcement may have against them. The exemptions are usually misapplied when officers shoot or use force against a suspect, and therefore know that their actions are the focus of the investigation.
“It is for that reason that the investigative records exemption literally makes no sense and should have no place when it comes to police body camera footage,” Chad Marlow, an expert on laws governing body cameras at the American Civil Liberties Union, told PBS. “We didn’t know that would end up being the get-out-of-FOIA free card for police departments, but it has certainly turned into that.”
Former federal prosecutor Val Van Brocklin told PBS that the problem is that “there is no national standard of when and how this stuff gets released.”
As an example, the police department in Sugar Land, Texas, was more than happy to release video of its officers rescuing a woman from a lake but refused to release footage of a 2016 struggle in which a man alleges he was beaten and severely injured by officers.
There are countless other examples, including this one shared by PBS:
In North Liberty, Iowa, a city lawyer responded to a request for video of a traffic stop by calling it a confidential investigative record — then demanded the AP not publish footage the news organization had already obtained of the incident.
The city had fired a patrol supervisor for mishandling the stop, claiming he violated the rights of suspects in a road rage incident, failed to draw his weapon and made other procedural errors. The supervisor has filed a lawsuit contesting his firing, and his attorney provided the AP with footage that he says shows his client acted appropriately. The city released a redacted version of the video only after AP declined the city’s request.
As this continues to be a problem across the nation, PBS cites California as “a bright spot for transparency.”
Sacramento’s policy of releasing video within 30 days of an incident is something the city prides itself on.
Sacramento Police Department spokesman Marcus Basquez told PBS, “That’s a big priority for us, to build that trust with our community, and we feel releasing body-worn camera footage is one way.”
If only all departments felt that way.