This is the second in a series of short articles presenting comments and counterpoints to an article in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 2023, titled “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras” by Eric Umansky. You can read Part 1 here.
In the article, Mr. Umansky highlights several officer-involved shootings in the NYPD since 2017 to argue that NYPD has failed to provide “transparency” because they did not release the body camera video in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. He also identifies other such incidents around the country since 2015 that garnered national media attention. In each of these incidents the involved department failed to release the video in the immediate aftermath of the shooting which exacerbated the situations and heightened media attention. He then goes on to generalize that the same failure to release is common throughout the nation. He writes “In turn, departments across the country have routinely delayed releasing footage, released only partial or redacted video or refused to release it at all”. Later in the article he writes “But whether citizens benefit from the cameras they’re paying for is often up to the police, who have often been able to keep footage hidden from the public in even the most extreme cases”. His “hasty generalization” is that police departments nationwide often don’t release body camera videos and he uses the specific incidents highlighted in the article to support this premise. As I stated in Part 1, this simply isn’t accurate. I conducted a quick search on YouTube on January 3 using the search terms “Police Shootings Body Cameras” and came up with the following videos of officer involved shootings:
Location Date of Incident Date of Video Release
Sacramento PD 11/20/23 01/01/24
LAPD 12/01/23 01/02/24
San Antonio PD 09/04/23 09/23/23
DC Metro PD 12/18/23 12/25/23
Orlando PD 04/09/23 04/12/23
MN State Police 07/31/23 08/01/23
And there were dozens of pages more. Conduct your own search and see what you find.
Mr. Umansky infers that police departments should immediately (he doesn’t define what he considers “immediately”) release all body camera video in its unredacted entirety to the public (see quote above). I have watched a lot of people die, some of them police officers, in unredacted body camera videos. Does the “public” (always ill defined) really need, or want, to see the last moments of someone’s life in the quest to potentially uncover possible officer wrongdoing? Is it really in the “public interest”? Isn’t partial and redacted partial release in some formal format followed by a thorough and transparent investigation enough?
I am a proponent of releasing the complete and unredacted video to the family of the subject involved and their attorney, within a day or two and to the public in a redacted and edited format within a definite, previously established, timeframe, say 5-15 days. There are many agencies that release video in a very timely manner, either through their own internal direction, or through state law. Some agencies release the video in a documentary style format complete with spoken or written narration. Other are released in conjunction with a formal press briefing. I am not aware, though, of any agency that shows the moment of death. I realize this may not be soon enough for those who are on a constant quest to find police misconduct or incompetence, but I think it strikes a reasonable balance.
I will also acknowledge that there is still much work to be done in this area. Agencies that investigate their own shootings must have an established and public process for timely release, regardless of if it is established by state law or not, and then stick to it. There are thousands of smaller agencies across the country that do not investigate their own shootings. This is done by an external entity. Delays can occur when the investigative agency does not have the same impetus to release as does the involved agency. This too can be rectified by establishing procedures and timelines, either by agreement between agencies or state law. Finally, I agree with Mr. Umansky, that investigative agencies cannot delay release of video by using “investigatory exclusions” provided by law unless there are very real and articulable reasons for doing so.
There are also many privacy issues with the public release of unredacted raw footage. The American Civil Liberties Union has continually expressed concern for the privacy of citizens recorded by police body cameras. In their July 2021 Model Act for Regulating the Use of Body Worn Cameras by Law Enforcement (intended to provide recommendations to state legislative bodies in the development of state laws), they state, regarding release: “Whenever doing so is necessary to protect personal privacy, the right to a fair trial, the identity of a confidential source or crime victim, or the life or physical safety of any person appearing in video footage, redaction technology may be used to obscure the face and other personally identifying characteristics of that person, including the tone of the person’s voice, provided the redaction does not interfere with a viewer’s ability to fully, completely, and accurately comprehend the events captured on the video footage”. Again, this is a reasonable balance of privacy and accountability.
Nationwide, much must be done to improve processes to release body camera video in the aftermath of a critical incident. There remain obstacles in the form of police policies and practices, police leadership, internal and external investigative processes, prosecutors, formal police oversight bodies, local and state politicians, and state laws. However, it is not as bad as the generalized picture painted by Mr. Umansky. His perception of purported malfeasance by the agencies he identifies is not representative of the efforts of police departments across the country who are attempting to properly balance accountability with transparency, privacy, and the rule of law.
In Part 3 I will address Mr. Umansky’s premise that the police have too much control over body camera video, who sees it and when they see it.