When police shootings are caught on tape, agencies split on releasing video

Chicago police generic

Baltimore County on Monday released video of an officer-involved shooting four days after it happened. The victim/drug suspect didn’t die and police said he “suddenly placed his hand into his waistband area and turned toward the officer.” But if the shooting were more controversial, would we have seen the footage so quickly?

The debate still rages across the country: When, and even if, police should release video footage of critical incidents. Though body-worn cameras are the hot topic now, private surveillance camera footage from parking lots and office buildings are also in the conversation. After only four days, Cleveland police in 2014 released the surveillance video of an officer killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice, saying they were “honoring the wishes of the family in releasing this and also in the spirit of being open and fair with our community.” That did not exactly cool civic outrage. On the other hand, Fairfax County, Va., took 5 1/2 years to release the dash-cam footage of the officer who killed unarmed motorist David Masters on Route 1 in 2009. There is no consensus on how to deal with the footage.

“Departments are all over the map,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises police chiefs around the country on policy issues. Some cities put their videos up quickly, while others, such as Chicago in the Laquan McDonald case, wait more than a year. Some may never be made public. “It is a hotly debated issue. Different departments are figuring out how to manage this.” Last week, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago police would release critical videos in 60 to 90 days, after the McDonald video was suppressed for more than a year.

Part of the problem is there are so many different entities with a hand in deciding what to do with the footage. Police departments, city councils, county and state legislatures, and police unions all want to have a say in the policy. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls it “the Wild West of open records requests” for anyone trying to figure out where to go and what the rules are on obtaining police video. Some cities, such as Boston and Seattle, are working to respond promptly to video requests. But in California a bill is pending to exempt all body-camera video from release. One town in Florida demanded $18,000 in response to a request for 84 hours of video. In Virginia, police may at their discretion withhold any investigative materials forever. The Reporters Committee is tracking various laws and policies here.

There are powerful forces pushing for better responsiveness. News media and civic activists are asking, Why even shoot the footage if it’s not going to be seen by the public? “The goal of body cameras is to build trust between communities and the public servants sworn to protect them,” the Reporters Committee’s Adam Marshall and Katie Townsend wrote in The Post last year. “If the public can’t see what the police are doing, that will never happen.” Police unions have often pushed for more openness, to demonstrate that 99 percent of the time, officers making split-second decisions did so correctly.

“It’s the latest example of an ever-present conflict in police communications,” said Baltimore County police spokeswoman Elise Armacost, “between the need for transparency and the need to protect an investigation, the release of law enforcement information. The video just ups the ante because video is more compelling.” Baltimore County makes its decisions to release on a case-by-case basis, and only after a release has been cleared by the state’s attorney. The county released a surveillance video of a fatal officer-involved shooting in Reisterstown in September two days after it happened.

In the District, the mayor and police chief initially opposed releasing any video, then working with the city council reversed course and in December cleared the way for video releases. Council member Kenyan McDuffie called the new policy “one of the most expansive and thorough regulatory schemes in the country.”

Prince William County, Va., is considering a policy for body-worn cameras which says the police chief “may authorize the release of any body-worn camera recording deemed to be in the best interest of public safety.” And that’s a nod to another, newer force in the equation: the power of social media, and simmering distrust of law enforcement in some communities, to spark a flash of public unrest that can spiral into protests and riots if not quickly addressed.

In the intense days after an incident, police chiefs are hearing from all sides, said Tom Manger, head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and chief of Montgomery County, Md. “I’ve got the state’s attorney telling me if I put it out, it makes it difficult to get a fair trial,” Manger said. “On the other hand, we had a shooting last year and social media blew up with no facts. Our department says we’ve got to put it out to put the rumors to rest. That’s the conundrum you’re into.”

Another problem is that a grainy tape from a fixed surveillance camera may not capture everything. “Everybody wants to see the tape so they can make the judgment for themselves,” Manger said. “But if 10 people see it, they see it 10 different ways. The tapes aren’t the end-all be-all….I don’t want to jeopardize any criminal investigations. But I also don’t want to have riots in my streets.”

And there’s another voice speaking in police chiefs’ ears: their legal departments, considering the possibility of liability down the road, and the insurance companies who insure them. A new paper by University of Chicago law professor John Rappaport suggests that “insurance companies can and do shape police behavior or, at the least, influence policies, practices, and personnel decisions that are themselves proven or presumed to affect behavior.” Which can further complicate any chief’s decision to release a video in the heat of the moment.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.