It would seem like a given. After a police officer’s body camera captures a fatal shooting, law enforcement should release the footage of the incident to the public in the interest of transparency and accountability.
But rarely does it happen that seamlessly. For a host of reasons, including entrenched bureaucratic practice, privacy concerns and fear of compromising a criminal investigation, footage from law enforcement body cameras is often sealed away from public view for weeks or months after a shooting—if it’s ever released at all, a roadblock that has often frustrated those who are pushing for more accountability from police.
The latest deadly police encounter captured on video occurred over the weekend in Milwaukee, where the fatal shooting of an armed black man by a police officer sparked violent protests in the economically and racially segregated city. Officers say footage from a police-worn body camera clearly shows 23-year-old Sylville Smith holding a gun when he was shot. Releasing the video could go a long way to assuaging protesters who believe Smith’s shooting wasn’t justified, but the video hasn’t been made public—and according to Milwaukee’s police chief, the choice isn’t even up to his department.
The patchwork of practices around the country highlights the lack of a standardized national approach to dealing with the increasing volume of footage generated by law enforcement agencies. Indeed, there are multiple conflicting interests that play into the decision of whether to release police body cam footage. Judges may block it because it could affect future trials of officers involved. Prosecutors may lobby against it because it could taint a potential jury pool. Some states have even passed laws making body cam footage exempt from freedom of information requests. There are privacy concerns for bystanders who may have been recorded inadvertently. And in some instances, the decision is up to independent investigative agencies. That’s the case in Wisconsin, where the state’s Department of Justice is investigating Smith’s shooting and will be the one to decide whether to release the video.
“There are different sets of priorities,”says John DeCarlo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. “Prosecutors and judges look at it and say, ‘I have to try this case and if I put it out, I could hurt my case.’ But a police chief might say, ‘I want people to know what’s going on, especially if it’s going to stop riots.'”
To many advocates for greater transparency, the most egregious delay occurred in Chicago, where the police department held on to footage of the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old who was shot 16 times by a white Chicago officer, for more than a year while routinely fighting public requests for its release. City officials were widely criticized for not making the footage public, and a series of protests eventually forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire the city’s police chief Garry McCarthy over the handling of McDonald’s death. Since then the city has attempted a number of reforms to make the department more accountable. In June, the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, tasked with investigating officer-involved shootings, released more than 300 videos of police-related incidents in a move to restore trust between officers and black communities. Earlier this month, officials released nine body cam videos surrounding the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal just days after the incident, an uncharacteristically quick move for the department.
But the issue of police-involved shootings is so fraught that sometimes agencies are hesitant to make the video public even if they believe it shows that their officers did nothing wrong. “There are concerns sometimes within departments that even when the footage supports the decision made by the police officer, it could still provide ammunition for people who just don’t trust the police no matter what it shows,” says Michael Rich, an Elon University law professor.
Officials may consider other factors, such as the angle at which the footage was taken or if the camera was turned on in the middle of an incident, which may not give a full or accurate account of what happened.
“There are all kinds of reasons why a police department might not want to release it right away,” says Kami Chavis, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who studies police accountability. “The key is to developing a comprehensive policy, because you have to balance all of those competing interests.”
One city Chavis points to as a potential model is Washington, D.C., where the final decision to release body cam footage doesn’t reside with the police or prosecutors. Instead, it’s in the hands of the mayor, whose status as an elected official theoretically makes him or her more accountable to the public than an independent state agency. The mayor now has discretion to release video on a case-by-case basis after conferring with police, the U.S. attorney, and D.C.’s attorney general if he or she determines that the release is in the public interest. In June, Mayor Muriel Bower did just that when she ordered video released of the shooting death of 63-year-old Sherman Evans, who was shot three times by officers after refusing to put down what was later found to be a pellet gun.
“When there is an officer-involved shooting, I think police departments should err on the side of releasing that footage after they’ve made sure privacy concerns are protected,” Chavis says. “There’s been so much distrust and a history of tensions between some communities and police. This can help the public in terms of increasing transparency.”