On Aug. 13, A police body camera in Milwaukee captured the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith, 23, a black man who officials say was fleeing police while armed–something they say is clear in the video. In the immediate aftermath, the public had to take their word for it.
The decision not to release body-camera footage may seem odd, especially at a time when trust is so low between cops and some of the communities they serve. But sometimes, it’s not entirely up to law enforcement. Judges may block a video’s release because it could affect potential trials of officers involved. Prosecutors may lobby against it because it could taint a potential jury pool. And in some instances, independent investigative agencies make the final decision, as in Wisconsin, where the state’s department of justice is investigating Smith’s death and will decide whether to release the video.
Officials consider other factors as well, such as the video’s angle or whether the camera was turned on in the middle of an incident, which may affect the completeness or accuracy of the video account. They also must keep in mind privacy concerns of bystanders who may have inadvertently ended up in the shot. “Releasing the footage can help the public in terms of increasing transparency,” says Kami Chavis, a Wake Forest University law professor who studies police accountability. “The key is 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 doesn’t rest with the police or prosecutors. Instead, it’s made on a case-by-case basis by the mayor, who is presumably better equipped to decide whether releasing a video is in the public interest. Most officer-involved shootings, Chavis says, would likely meet that standard.
This appears in the August 29, 2016 issue of TIME.
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