AP: Police Officer Videos Often Withheld from Public

The AP found that it is typical for police to not release their videos, claiming that doing so would compromise an ongoing investigation.
Published: March 18, 2019

An investigation by The Associated Press has found that police departments often withhold videos taken by body cameras or dashboard cameras.

The withheld videos often show officer-involved shootings or other uses of force. Police routinely claim that releasing these videos could undermine ongoing investigations.

In a video from last July, an officer is seen striking an unarmed suspect with his handgun and the man falls to the ground. The man, 26-year-old Daniel Fuller, ended up dying from a gunshot wound to the back of the head, according to his autopsy.

The video was kept from the family and public for months. It wasn’t until November that the video was shown, and a prosecutor announced the officer did not intend to fire his gun and would not be facing criminal charges.

——Article Continues Below——

Get the latest industry news and research delivered directly to your inbox.

“It took forever for them to release the video because they kept saying it was an ongoing investigation,” said Fuller’s sister, Allyson Bartlett. “I don’t think they wanted pressure from the community.”

Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars over the last five years to upgrade officer’s uniforms and vehicles by adding cameras.

Body cameras and dashboard cameras have been praised for their ability to increase police transparency and store footage to be used as evidence.

The AP review found, however, that these videos can be withheld for months, a year or even indefinitely.

Police videos are considered public records in nearly every state. However, when citizens request videos, police and prosecutors leave it up to their own discretion to determine when to release them due to vague laws and exemptions.

Former federal prosecutor Val Van Brocklin says, “There is no national standard of when and how this stuff gets released.”

AP investigated the situation by filing open records requests related to roughly 20 recent use-of-force incidents in a dozen states. They were answered with denials and did not see a single video that was not already public.

One county claimed investigation exemptions could allow it to keep a motorist’s fatal shooting video a secret forever, even though the investigation was over.

Critics of the exemption say it is misapplied to keep the public from viewing a video that might shine police officers in an unfavorable light.

Jonny Hibbert represents the family of an 18-year-old man who was shot and killed by an off-duty officer after allegedly stealing his car. His request for any video from the incident has been denied.

“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,” said Chad Marlow, an expert on laws governing body cameras at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Authorities have responded to these critics by saying there are good reasons for withholding video during investigations, including preventing the memories of witnesses from being tainted.

Police departments around the country have faced pressure to wear body cameras, especially after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss., and other similar deaths of unarmed black men.

Marlow says that rather than resist, officers embraced the cameras, but then only release the positive videos.

“The decisions about whether footage is being released or not is being dominated by the group that is supposed to be watched,” he said. “When that happens, police body cameras go from being a tool for transparency and accountability into a propaganda tool.”

The Sacramento (Calif.) Police Department is among the most transparent when it comes to releasing officer videos.

“We hope to say that we’re leading the way in releasing it and being transparent,” said spokesman Marcus Basquez. “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.”

In July, a new California law will require all state and local law enforcement agencies to make audio and video recordings public after 45 days of critical incidents.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series