February 1, 2017 by and

Policing Project to Assist LA: When to Release Body Camera Footage

© Ken Kistler, content modified and licensed under Creative Commons

The Los Angeles Police Commission has asked the Policing Project to run a community-wide engagement over one of the more complicated questions about body cameras: when to release footage after an officer-involved shooting.

Prompted in part by officer-involved shootings and other uses of force that captured the headlines, many police departments throughout the country have begun to outfit their officers with body-worn cameras (BWCs). The implementation of BWCs has been viewed as a major stride in accountability and transparency on behalf of police departments.  However, in achieving this transparency, both the departments and the communities in which they reside must decide how to resolve one of the most critical questions regarding BWCs: when, and under what circumstances, to release BWC footage following a critical incident.

In many departments, the policy––official or otherwise––has not been to release footage following an officer-involved shooting or other critical incident.  Departments and local prosecutors cite concerns that public release of these sensitive materials would interfere with their ongoing investigations, or perhaps put those involved in the incident (officers and civilians alike) at risk.

In the past couple of years, however, there have been voluble calls for the release of BWC footage after officer-involved shootings, in places like Chicago and Charlotte. After public outcry, video has been released.

And in response, some departments have begun to modify their video-release policies.  For instance, Chicago revised its policy on BWC video release in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force published a report containing recommendations that the Chicago Police Department then implemented. The revised Chicago policy calls for mandatory and automatic public release of video related to a critical incident within 60 days after the incident occurs, or at an earlier date when possible. Before a video is made public, however, the individuals depicted or described in the footage (or the family or legal representative if the individual is deceased) must be given notice.

After two fatal shootings in October brought the video release issue directly to Los Angeles, LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck decided to release footage from one of the incidents. The Inspector General and the LA Police Commission have since called on the LAPD to review its policies surrounding the release of BWC footage, as well as other information, following a critical incident, and to devise a fair and comprehensive video release policy to use going forward.

The Policing Project will work with the Los Angeles Police Department and local stakeholders to engage the public regarding when video should be released following a critical incident. We will conduct initial interviews with stakeholders––from advocacy groups, the police, activists, and the District Attorney’s office––to develop a full set of relevant considerations.  Then, there will be community wide forums, and an on-line questionnaire similar to the sort used in our projects involving Camden’s and the NYPD’s body camera policies.

We anticipate completing a public report by mid-July.  The Los Angeles Police Commission will use this information to develop a video-release policy.  We hope that the new policy in Los Angeles will serve as a national model to increase police transparency and accountability across the country.