A debate over whether the public is entitled to see police body cam footage

I’ve been going back and forth on the police body cam issue since it first came up but there’s one aspect of the debate which I never really considered before today. Nick Wing at Huffpo raises the tangential question of what happens to body cam footage during an investigation. Who gets to see it aside from the police and possibly a jury if one is seated? Assuming there was some sort of violent encounter with the police, should we immediately expect that the footage will be on the news the next day and available online for us to peruse? As it happens, some police departments aren’t dishing it out despite protests from family members and the media. After Charly Keunang was shot by the LAPD while fighting with them and allegedly taking a gun off one of the cops, body camera footage was available. That was back in March, but to this day only a handful of people have seen it and it’s still not available to the public. (Huffington Post)

As the public searches for answers about what happened on that afternoon in March, a new set of concerns has emerged about police officers’ use of body cameras — and how, or if, the devices will promote accountability and transparency if the policies that govern the footage are overly restrictive.

Two of the officers involved in Keunang’s killing were equipped with body cameras that were recording during the episode. Although investigators have that footage in their possession, the LAPD has not publicly released it. Under recently adopted policy, the department likely won’t release the videos unless it’s compelled to do so in a criminal or civil court proceeding.

Without the body camera footage, a number of questions linger. What happened before the confrontation became physical? Could officers have done a better job of de-escalating? Does the body camera video provide a clearer picture of how and why officers resorted to deadly force?

Every time the police resort to using deadly force these days it’s a news story, no matter how obvious it may have been that the killing was warranted. That baseline assumption was one of the reasons that I’d been leaning mostly in favor of making body cameras the standard nationally, assuming the costs and data retention could be managed. Another factor was my confidence that the vast, vast majority of officer involved shootings turn out to be justified and having real time video of the encounter might more quickly vindicate the officer and get them back on duty. Arguments against the proposal included concerns that the constant availability of such recordings might make officers more tentative on the job, potentially holding back at a crucial moment for fear that the media would twist what was happening out of proportion and lead to the end of their career.

Nick Wing’s column adds a new wrinkle to these concerns, though. I suppose I just assumed that the video would be put out to the press whether it looks good or ill for the cops in question. If the cops were just doing their jobs, a riot might be prevented is the police could quickly show the public video of the perp firing on the police or whatever the circumstances might have been. And if the cop was truly acting beyond the pale in a malicious fashion, I imagine the police would want to be able to make that determination quickly and take action, allowing them to hold a presser and essentially say, “Yep. That was inexcusable and we’re taking action against the officer at once. Justice will be done.”

Again, if that’s what happens, you might avoid another riot or having Al Sharpton move into your town. It’s pretty much how things played out in South Carolina this year with the case of Walter Scott. So I’m left wondering what the other side of this argument is. Why would a police force be putting a policy in place that locks up the video unless compelled by a court to produce it? It seems to me that such secrecy just makes it look like you’ve got something to hide even if everything is on the up and up. And if everyone knows that all the cops have cameras and the video is out there, it’s not as if the subject will be dropped. The LAPD is basically going back to a stance of asking the public to “just trust us” when they have material in hand which might settle the question.

I’d like to hear more from the LAPD on this before making up my mind, but this seems like a bad idea.