States Impose Wildly Different Policies in Releasing Police Videos

By: - October 11, 2016 12:00 am

A Hagerstown, Maryland, police officer speaks with a 15-year-old girl in a video frame taken by a police body camera. States and municipalities are imposing wildly disparate policies for when and how footage should be released.

© The Associated Press

Last month police in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot an African-American man and then sat on the footage from their body and dashboard cameras, refusing to release it until protesters’ demands that the footage be shared turned violent.

Had the shooting occurred 11 days later, recordings of it would not have been considered public record under a new North Carolina law, making it harder to force police to share the footage.

The law, which went into effect Oct. 1, requires media outlets and others who want to see body camera footage get a court order to do so. It is among several new policies across the country that restrict access to body camera footage, as cities and states grapple with storing hours of footage and competing demands on how accessible it should be.

Over the last two years, and without much regulation, police departments have hurried to strap body cameras to their officers, both to address demands for transparency and to protect police from accusations of wrongdoing.

But once the cameras started rolling, many departments were left not knowing when or how they could show the footage to the public, prompting policymakers to act. At least 21 states and dozens of municipalities have instituted policies that range from treating body camera footage like other public records to imposing outright bans on releasing footage. And more could be on the way to locking down body camera footage.

Figuring out how to share what the cameras capture is a difficult balance, said Dave McClure, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused economic and social policy research.

“You want to be transparent with the footage, and let the public see it because they need to know what police officers are doing,” McClure said. “But it also contains information that is very sensitive and private.”

Many of the nation’s 12,000 police departments use body cameras, though some have already abandoned the devices because they say storing the footage is expensive and laws requiring departments to retain the footage for long periods are cost prohibitive. 

Missouri this year passed a law that makes footage public unless it’s taken in a private place or shows victims. Georgia did that last year.

But Steve Zansberg, a Colorado-based First Amendment attorney who has represented media companies, calls for greater openness and transparency. He said all recordings made in public spaces should be presumptively open because they document the conduct of public servants.

“The idea of ‘take our word for it’ just doesn’t work,” said Zansberg, adding that laws like North Carolina’s feed a culture of secrecy among law enforcement. 

Most states choose to enact more restrictive laws, Zansberg said, but he points to Oklahoma as a state with a more open policy. That law, enacted last year, generally allows for the disclosure of body camera footage, save for recordings that include nudity, children, criminal informants, victims of sex crimes or domestic violence and the personal information of innocent people. 

Footage that shows assault victims, undercover police officers or criminal informants should probably be kept from the public, Zansberg said. But he says requiring a court order, as North Carolina now does, is an “inhibiting step” for ordinary citizens who want to review police recordings.

But supporters of the North Carolina law say having an impartial judge decide whether footage can be viewed means police can’t hide information.

John Faircloth, the Republican North Carolina state representative who sponsored the new law, said it is not meant to hold up requests for video but is intended to protect the privacy of innocent people captured on the cameras. Typical body camera recordings contain footage of day-to-day police work and will rarely be controversial, he said, meaning most requests can be dealt with quickly because there will be little reason to not disclose them.

“We think people have spoken out against it because they don’t understand how simple and easily it can work,” Faircloth said. 

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Sarah Breitenbach

Sarah Breitenbach, who writes about the business of government for Stateline, has spent much of her professional life writing about Maryland politics and policy. She began her career covering education and state government for the Frederick News-Post and has worked for the Gazette of Politics and Business and The Associated Press.