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Police Body Cameras, A Decade Later

by Anthony W. Accurso

It has been 10 years since body-worn cameras (“BWCs”) were posited as a solution to the lack of accountability in police murders of citizens, but police are still largely unaccountable, in part because the footage is often difficult to obtain.

At least 1,201 people were killed in 2022 by law enforcement officers—about 100 per month. ProPublica looked into the 101 known deaths that occurred in June of that year to determine how many were recorded and what happened to those recordings. The fact that it covered 131 law enforcement agencies in 34 states gives a broad view of the state of BWC video availability in America.

BWCs were the center of President Barack Obama’s police reform efforts following the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. It was one in a series of killings by police where the officers’ stories differed from witness accounts or videos taken by civilians nearby. Weeks of protest followed Brown’s killing, drawing the nation’s attention to the pervasive problems within Ferguson’s police.

“By 2016,” wrote ProPublica, “nearly half of 15,328 law enforcement agencies across the country, and 80% of police departments with more than 500 officers, had begun using the cameras, according to the Department of Justice.” The more than $184 million dispensed by DOJ made BWCs a regular feature in media portrayals of police and a regular part of court cases where police interactions recorded on camera help determine whether police respected the Constitution’s protections.

But courts are different from the general public, and it is the community’s trust in police that is damaged when officers kill people. “The point of the tape being released is expediency in getting it to the public,” said Juandalynn Givan, a state lawmaker in Alabama who has pushed for more transparency there. “You might not have convened a grand jury for six or eight months.”

What has happened since the proliferation of BWCs is that, in many jurisdictions, police unions have lobbied for, and gotten, exemptions to open records laws that have the effect of keeping recorded video of incidents of police murders from reaching the public, sometimes forever. In some cases, even families cannot view the video, or they must review the video at the police station—often in the presence of the officers who killed their family member. In contrast, community efforts have resulted in transparency in some jurisdictions.

Thus, a patchwork of laws has evolved with widely different outcomes, depending on the state or even the city. Alabama, Kansas, and South Carolina have laws making the video confidential by default, which requires a court order for release solely at the discretion of police and a judge.

California, by contrast, mandates all departments make available the footage of any “critical incident” within 45 days. Seattle, Washington, requires release within 72 hours, while release is required within one week in Akron, Ohio.

The ProPublica survey found that, of the 101 police-involved deaths that occurred in June 2022, 79 were recorded on BWCs. Yet, only 33 were eventually released to the public. Of the remaining 46 cases, ProPublica filed open records requests for the footage. In 26 cases, police refused to release the video, citing state laws, or simply refused to respond. In 14 cases, departments were willing to release it for a fee, ranging from “$19 in Lowndes County, Georgia, to nearly $16,000 in Hillsborough County, Florida.” Six departments eventually gave up the footage for free.

“If you want to increase transparency and accountability and restore the trust that this community has lost … release the doggone tapes,” said Christian Kelley, whose brother Christopher was killed by police in Topeka, Kansas, while suffering a mental health crisis.

Police union efforts to prevent the release of tapes show that, in the majority of cases, even a decade after the introduction of BWCs, trust and accountability are still not priorities of police departments.

“They were wholly sold as an accountability tool to reassure people that police would be held accountable for their actions or for what they are doing while operating under the powers of the state,” said Hans Menos, who advises police departments with the Center for Policing Equity. “If we don’t provide that level of transparency, what we’ve really done is made people pay for something that they don’t get any tangible benefit out of.”  



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