The Washington Post
Published Oct. 8, 2015
Autumn Steele and her husband, Gabriel, were fighting again, so he called 911. A police officer sped to their home, pulled out his gun and then — frightened by the family dog — opened fire, killing Autumn with a bullet to her chest.
Since the Jan. 6 shooting, Steele’s family has battled police in Burlington, Iowa, to see 28 minutes of body camera video recorded by the two officers who responded that day. Police have declared the videos confidential, saying the shooting was tragic but reasonable, given that the dog “attacked.” State investigators have released a 12-second clip from the videos, but Steele’s relatives say it raises more questions than it answers.
“I deserve to know what happened to my daughter. The public deserves to know,” said Steele’s mother, Gail Colbert. “How can they keep this from us?”
In the turbulent year since Michael Brown’s death sparked protests in Ferguson, Mo., and beyond, politicians, law enforcement officials and community activists have seized on body cameras as a vital reform capable of restoring transparency and trust to police interactions with the public. But in Burlington and elsewhere around the country, police and other officials are routinely blocking the release of body camera videos while giving officers accused of wrongdoing special access to the footage.
Nationwide, police have shot and killed 760 people since January, according to a Washington Post database tracking every fatal shooting. Of those, The Post has found 49 incidents captured by body camera, or about 6 percent.
Just 21 of those videos — less than half — have been publicly released. And in several of those cases, the footage, as in Burlington, was severely cut or otherwise edited.
Meanwhile, virtually all of the 36 departments involved in those shootings have permitted their officers to view the videos before giving statements to investigators, The Post found. Civil and human rights groups fear that access could help rogue officers tailor their stories to obscure misconduct and avoid prosecution.
“What point is there of even doing this if they are going to be treated this way? Why even spend the money on these cameras?” said Burlington Mayor Shane McCampbell, who has called on police to release video of the Steele shooting. He noted that police promised greater openness last year when they petitioned the city to buy body cameras.
If the videos “are going to be a secret, no one is being held accountable,” McCampbell said. “And that was the point.”
While individual police departments are adopting rules on the local level, police chiefs and unions are lobbying state officials to enshrine favorable policies into law. In 36 states and the District this year, lawmakers introduced legislation to create statewide rules governing the use of body cameras, often with the goal of increasing transparency.
Of 138 bills, 20 were enacted, The Post found. Eight of those expanded the use of body cameras. However, 10 set up legal roadblocks to public access in states such as Florida, South Carolina and Texas. And most died after police chiefs and unions mounted fierce campaigns against them.
Police officials defend that effort, saying overly lax rules could end up helping criminals. Jury pools could be tainted by the general release of video evidence, making it difficult to win convictions. Eyewitnesses and informants may be reluctant to come forward if there’s a chance they were caught on a video that may be publicly released. Other people caught on camera may file lawsuits claiming that police violated their right to privacy.
“If you have a kid who drank too much on his 21st birthday and the police are called, do you really want video of that kid, sick and throwing up, to be on YouTube for the rest of his life?” said Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the University of Central Florida’s police force.
Those arguments prevailed in Los Angeles this spring, when the city’s police commission adopted one of the most restrictive policies in the nation. Now, anyone who wants a body camera video from the Los Angeles Police Department will likely have to ask for it in court.
“A judge should be making this decision,” said Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the local police union. “They can listen to all sides of the argument, weigh everyone’s interests and determine if there really is a public interest at stake.”
Civil rights organizations say policies that restrict access subvert the promise of body cameras.
“If police departments and law enforcement become the sole arbiters of what video the public gets to see, body cameras will go from being a transparency and accountability tool to a surveillance and propaganda tool,” said Chad Marlow, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Are we going to let that happen?”