Why Police Departments Don’t Always Release Body Cam Footage

Officer Involved Shooting Milwaukee

Police guard a police station in Milwaukee, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. Police said one person was shot at a Milwaukee protest on Sunday evening and officers used an armored vehicle to retrieve the injured victim during a second night of unrest over the police shooting of a black man, but there was no repeat of widespread destruction of property. Some two dozen officers in riot gear confronted a group who were throwing rocks and other objects at police near where the black man was fatally shot a day earlier. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Source: Time

By Josh Sanburn

It would seem like a given. After a police officer’s body camera captures a fatal shooting, law enforcement should release the footage of the incident to the public in the interest of transparency and accountability.

But rarely does it happen that seamlessly. For a host of reasons, including entrenched bureaucratic practice, privacy concerns and fear of compromising a criminal investigation, footage from law enforcement body cameras is often sealed away from public view for weeks or months after a shooting—if it’s ever released at all, a roadblock that has often frustrated those who are pushing for more accountability from police.

The latest deadly police encounter captured on video occurred over the weekend in Milwaukee, where the fatal shooting of an armed black man by a police officer sparked violent protests in the economically and racially segregated city. Officers say footage from a police-worn body camera clearly shows 23-year-old Sylville Smithholding a gun when he was shot. Releasing the video could go a long way to assuaging protesters who believe Smith’s shooting wasn’t justified, but the video hasn’t been made public—and according to Milwaukee’s police chief, the choice isn’t even up to his department.

The patchwork of practices around the country highlights the lack of a standardized national approach to dealing with the increasing volume of footage generated by law enforcement agencies. Indeed, there are multiple conflicting interests that play into the decision of whether to release police body cam footage. Judges may block it because it could affect future trials of officers involved. Prosecutors may lobby against it because it could taint a potential jury pool. Some states have even passed laws making body cam footage exempt from freedom of information requests. There are privacy concerns for bystanders who may have been recorded inadvertently. And in some instances, the decision is up to independent investigative agencies. That’s the case in Wisconsin, where the state’s Department of Justice is investigating Smith’s shooting and will be the one to decide whether to release the video.

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