May 8, 2021

The Challenge of Body-Worn Camera Video: Release Now or Wait Until Later?



Dear PERF members, 

“A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record…. With certain limited exceptions, body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request—not only because the videos are public records, but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”

That statement was not a response to the recent spate of officer-involved shootings captured on video. It’s actually from my cover letter to the 2014 PERF report for the U.S. Department of Justice in which PERF laid out our national guidelines for police use of body-worn cameras.

As forward-thinking as we tried to be back then, we had no idea just how important the issue of releasing camera footage would become by 2021.

At the time of our report, body-worn cameras were still a relatively new and emerging technology. A PERF survey in 2013 found that only about one-quarter of our member agencies had implemented body-worn camera programs.

Today, at least half of U.S. police agencies equip their officers with body-worn cameras, including almost every major city police department. And in some states, such as Illinois and Maryland, departments will soon be required by law to implement camera programs.

There doesn’t seem to be a major police incident these days where people don’t immediately ask, “Where is the body-worn camera footage?” As we foreshadowed back in 2014, members of the community expect – indeed, demand – that video will be made available to the public in the aftermath of a serious incident involving use of force.   

Many jurisdictions recognize this. They mandate the release of camera footage, either by law or policy, and set specific deadlines for when that will happen.  

In Chicago, for example, body-worn camera video must be released within 60 days of a critical incident. In Los Angeles, the standard is 45 days. In Houston, new Police Chief Troy Finner has announced that his department will release footage within 30 days of any police encounter involving a death or injury. And in Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police Department has five days to release video from critical incidents.

The policy of the Louisville Metro Police Department is to release body-worn camera video within 24 hours. However, because investigations of officer-involved shootings and other critical incidents in Louisville are led by the Kentucky State Police, that agency gets to decide when footage is released, which can add several days to the timeline.

These deadlines specify the outer limits on when body-worn camera video will be released. But the reality is that when a critical incident occurs, the community expects to see footage not in a matter of weeks or months, but in days or even hours.

And police agencies are discovering that releasing camera footage sooner rather than later is often in their best interest too – not just to demonstrate transparency, but also to put to rest false rumors that often crop up, and provide an accurate narrative of what occurred.

Last month in Columbus, Ohio, police released video of the fatal officer-involved shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant on the very same day of the incident, and then released additional video the next day. The footage revealed a chaotic scene in which the officer fired just as the 16-year-old was about to stab another girl. Without this video, all the public may have known is that a “Columbus police officer shot a 16-year-old girl upon arriving at the scene.”

In Washington, DC, a Metropolitan Police officer responding to a domestic disturbance call shot and killed Terrance Maurice Parker as he brandished a firearm in an apartment bedroom. The family was shown the video the next day, which confirmed that the man was pointing a gun, and the Police Department released the footage to the public the day after that.  In this case, there had been immediate rumors that the police shot Mr. Parker in the back, which the video refuted.

Or consider the March 29 shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer, following a lengthy foot pursuit down an alley at 2:30 in the morning.  The shooting raised significant questions in the community about the officer’s actions and whether the 13-year-old had really posed a threat.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability released the officer’s body-worn camera video about two weeks after the incident. It revealed a much more nuanced situation in which the youngster had reached a fence in the alley and was tossing a gun over the fence when he turned toward the officer. The video showed that just eight-tenths of a second elapsed from the time the gun was first visible in the boy’s hand to when the officer fired his weapon – a detail that never could have been documented without the video.

In none of these cases did releasing the video answer every question or address every community concern. There have still been protests over the police actions in Columbus, Chicago, and other cities where camera footage has been released. But making the video public – and doing so quickly – helped to provide important context and details to these events, and it demonstrated openness and transparency on the part of the police. Over and over again, we have seen that getting video out quickly makes a positive difference by demonstrating that the department doesn’t just talk about transparency, but actually is transparent!

Contrast that with the situation in Elizabeth City, NC. On April 21, deputies with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office were serving arrest and search warrants on Andrew Brown, Jr. when they shot and killed him as he tried to leave the scene in his car. The sheriff has acknowledged that there is body-worn camera footage from several deputies involved in the incident, and he has asked to have it made public. But North Carolina law prohibits the release of footage from an active investigation without a court order, and a judge has turned down requests to release the video.

That decision is undermining public confidence, not just in the investigation of the Andrew Brown case. It is eroding public trust in the police in general. When a video exists but is not made public, the overall impression is that “it must be really bad or the police would have released it.” And when it eventually does come out, the story often reads, “police finally released the video.”

I feel especially for Elizabeth City Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe. His officers were not involved in the original incident, but they are having to manage ongoing protests about the incident, and they are likely bearing some of the brunt of the community’s anger. Those protests have been peaceful (in part because the chief has worked closely with the community), but they still require the police department’s time and resources.

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Chuck Ramsey has often said that “bad news doesn’t get better with age.” Police chiefs and sheriffs across the country should keep that in mind, as they grapple with decisions about whether and when to release body-worn camera video.

What is at stake here are all the reasons agencies implemented body-worn cameras in the first place – to increase transparency and build legitimacy and trust with the community. Every day an agency holds on to a controversial video while rumors swirl in the community, these objectives are being tested – and public confidence in the police is being undermined.

One thing I have learned over the years is that chiefs often get bad advice on this issue from lawyers, mayoral staff, and even city managers and mayors. They will tell chiefs not to release body-worn camera video right away – to wait until things “calm down.”

Well, that is bad advice. Chiefs need to do what Al Casey, former CEO of American Airlines, once told me: “Don’t sit on bad news. If anything, hold back the good news and bring it in with bad news.”

As I said seven years ago in my introduction to the PERF guidelines on body-worn cameras, any chief or sheriff who implements a camera program is making a public statement that their officers’ actions are a matter of public record, just like a police report or other documentation of an incident.

We are in a different place today than we were seven years ago. Today the public has an expectation that their police should have nothing to hide. So even releasing a difficult video is better than the old days of stonewalling the public, which only erodes public trust.

The good news is that body-worn cameras seem to be effective in fulfilling their mission of providing accurate information to the community about some of the most difficult encounters that police face.

Have a wonderful weekend.