Police bodycams: The public’s need of transparency

Local

Tenn. (WJHL) — Public outrage erupted in Knoxville following last week’s officer-involved shooting death of 17-year-old Anthony Thomas Jr. at Austin-East Magnet High School.

Community members along with several civil rights organizations have demanded the release of police bodycam footage from the April 12 incident. While Knoxville Police have expressed support to reveal the footage, Tennessee state law maintains exemptions that would prevent the department from doing so.

News Channel 11 spoke with Deborah Fisher with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG), who told us last Monday’s shooting fits under one exemption in particular.

“A few years ago, the state legislature passed a law that created an exemption where some bodycam footage would be confidential, and one of those was footage of minors caught on body camera while they were in a K through 12 school,” Fisher said. “So, that would mean that any bodycam footage of the minor would be confidential.”

That doesn’t dismiss a redaction, however, according to Fisher, who said so as the minor isn’t shown, the partial footage could still be released.

Public need of transparency

While those in Knoxville continue to push for the bodycam footage, nationally, a precedent stands that upholds the public’s need for transparency between it and government agencies.

Fisher raised concern to recent events that attribute to the civil unrest and public scrutiny law enforcement has encountered — this stemming from a handful of officer-involved deaths among civilians.

“Especially now and in the past couple years, there’s a lot of pressure from the public who are concerned about what’s going on with police shootings, and obviously we have a lot of people calling for reform and different ways of dealing with situations that will perhaps reduce the number of people who are killed by police,” she said.

A facet that could point to law enforcement agencies’ seeming lack of transparency is that of the departments’ budgets and available funds. While several law enforcement groups in the Tri-Cities region don bodycams, there are a handful that don’t.

Fisher noted that this is due to a lack of funding rather than an attempt to avoid transparency.

“[Obtaining body cameras] is a very expensive endeavor,” Fisher said. “It’s not just buying the actual body cameras — it’s the storing of the footage; it’s the review of the footage. It’s preparing the footage if it’s going to be used somewhere.”

Fisher generalized that despite not all police departments having bodycams, most would want the opportunity to have that feature due to anecdotal circumstances.

“Some police departments want the body cameras because if they’re accused of doing something wrong, then they have the footage to say, ‘Look, no we didn’t,'” said said. “But it works both ways.”

On another scope, there are those that argue against the application of police bodycams, asserting that they clash with privacy laws.

“You’ve heard a lot of public demand for the body cameras, and I think that’s because they want there to be a document of what happened in a police interaction, but some people in the public don’t like the body cameras because they feel like that they’re too intrusive because you have to have policies about when you have them on and when you have them off,” Fisher said. “A lot of different values are at stake.”

For those with bodycams, some controversy arose in regard to when the cams are turned on and off. Fisher said there are no statewide policies concerning the on and off status of the devices.

“It’s basically going to be a local policy; there’s no state law that governs that to that granular detail,” she said. “I know some state laws have articulated when someone is supposed to have bodycams on or off, that that’s actually an important issue to be worked out.

“Unfortunately, it has happened sometimes where you realize that the footage that the officer had turned off the body camera at just the right moment before something happened that later, you know, someone wanted evidence. So we don’t want that too much discretion to be able to turn it off right before something bad is going to happen.”

What we all want is for the truth to come out in these situations in which there’s a lot of public interest because if the truth doesn’t come out, then you simply have rumors, and that’s not good for anybody.

Deborah Fisher, TCOG

Constitutional Law Expert Stewart Harris said that on the other hand, it’s rare for privacy invasions while on public grounds, but some concerns stand in other settings, such as police involvement at a residence.

“Generally speaking, there’s not a lot of privacy at stake in these situations because when the police encounter the public — it happens in public,” he said. “And, you know when you’re out of doors when you’re walking around on the sidewalk, you really don’t have that much of a privacy interest to protect.

“Now, it is possible when the police go into someone’s home, especially if there are innocent third parties there, then there can be an issue because everything’s being recorded. And they might catch you in a very private moment, or you may simply say, ‘I don’t want all of my books and papers and possessions or children being photographed and put into the public record,’ and I think that’s the sort of issue that the police are now working their way through. No doubt there are lawsuits pending on this subject and no doubt you know a set of rules will be promulgated. I think now, probably most jurisdictions go through and try to protect as much privacy as they can, while still not hindering the investigation or hindering the right of the public to see what the police are doing.”

Prevalence of bodycams in local jurisdictions

Abingdon Police Chief John Holbrook said that when civilians see the blue lights spark atop an Abingdon Police vehicle, the recording starts. According to Holbrook, there’s a 30-second lag, but he has the ability to check logs to identify when an officer switches a camera on or off.

“Interestingly enough, our Commonwealth attorney’s office will review our body camera footage for each and every case that we show up on, and it happens fairly often,” he said. “Anytime that one of our officers is on scene, they’ll have their body-worn camera running, and then that evidence would be submitted to our Commonwealth attorney for review and could be used in a case.”

Holbrook said bodycams and dashcams are nothing new to the jurisdiction; it’s featured some sort of video surveillance among its department for decades.

“Let’s go back from the beginning when I actually started here in 2004,” Holbrook said. “I was a young officer, and I got assigned to one of only two cars that had an in-car video system and that system even had the VHS tape that went in the trunk and a VCR in the trunk.

“So, since the beginning of my career. I’m used to having a camera with me, and I’ve learned to utilize that camera for evidence gathering, especially during DUI cases they became very beneficial.”

We reached out to a handful of law enforcement agencies and have provided a map depicting the responding departments that do and don’t sport bodycams in the region.

Requesting police bodycam footage

The state of Tennessee upholds police bodycam footage as an open public record, with some exemptions.

Those requesting police bodycam footage can do so by visiting the specific department’s website and requesting the footage.

Fisher said that bodycam and dashcam footage are treated the same among law enforcement.

“Generally, they would be treated the same — bodycam footage, dash cam footage could be released by police,” she said. “Police do have an option to keep that confidential if it’s relevant to an investigation.

“But eventually, under Tennessee state law, that footage would become public, and we do see what usually happens is that police will release the body cam and dash cam footage, especially in the situation of an officer-involved shooting. Probably not immediately, but eventually, especially if they decide they’re not going to have any charges against the officer.”

Across the state line in Virginia, Holbrook referred to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and said that, like in Tennessee, requested footage could be denied depending on the status of the investigation and whether or not it involves a juvenile.

“If it’s an active investigation, releasing that video may harm that case going forward,” he said. “We do withhold that. A lot of times we consult with our town attorney and a Commonwealth attorney to see what we can and cannot release as far as that’s concerned.”

Bodycam footage and its correlation to Constitutional Law

Constitutional Law Expert Stewart Harris told News Channel 11 that although bodycams are not a requirement among law enforcement departments, that might not always be the case.

“Body cameras are so new that I’m not aware of any nationwide or statewide requirement that each individual jurisdiction have them,” he said. “Now, that may eventually happen because it may very well be decided by the courts that these are so essential to protecting people’s rights that they have to be carried.”

However, it all trickles back down to the decision of local jurisdictions at this time.

“So, we default back to our federal system of government, you know, we have lots of local governments; we have lots of state governments,” Harris said. “We have lots of local control and individual police departments; individual cities and counties and municipalities can make a decision themselves as to whether they and their citizens want these cameras.”

In regard to the timeliness of bodycam footage release, Harris said certain factors remain: the avoidance to hinder an active case and protecting Americans’ rights.

“But I think that a reasonable delay, during which we’re protecting other rights — such as the rights of the criminal defendants in the case and the power of the police to conduct an appropriate investigation — the whole justice system depends upon this,” he said. “We want to protect all of those parties and simply releasing things prematurely can cause an awful lot of unnecessary harm.”

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