Dr. William Smock was troubled when he viewed the blurry police body camera footage.
In one heavily edited scene, a Memphis police officer appears to slide his arm around the neck of a juvenile he’s trying to arrest. Despite electronic redactions inserted into the video, the officer is seen holding the teen for a couple of seconds before both figures fall out of view.
“What I see is the application of pressure to the neck, which is strangulation,’’ said Smock, a chokehold expert whose resume includes testifying at the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted in April of the oxygen-deprivation death of George Floyd.
Smock reviewed newly released Memphis Police Department bodycam footage at the request of opens in a new windowThe Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian to help analyze a recurring concern: MPD often redacts bodycam footage to limit what’s seen and heard.
Pixelations that blur the image and alterations that mute the sound are used by MPD and many other police agencies to protect the identity of juveniles and other privacy concerns.
But they also often obscure police actions, making it difficult to assess whether officers acted responsibly or improperly.
Such redactions require time and effort to insert and, collectively, they’re helping create a nationwide backlog in the public’s demand for police video, colliding privacy interests with another cherished American value: The public’s right to know.
“It’s a persistent issue almost everywhere,’’ said Frank LoMonte, director of the opens in a new windowBrechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
Extensive redactions not only obscure what’s seen and heard, they’re triggering prohibitively steep costs and months-long waits as police charge hourly labor fees for censors to go frame by frame through footage.
The great irony, critics say, is that the American public has invested millions of dollars in bodycam programs to promote police transparency and build public trust and yet footage often is inaccessible, unaffordable or heavily edited.
“It’s very challenging for a journalist with a time-sensitive story to get hold of bodycam video in any realistically affordable way,’’ LoMonte said. “There are problems with timeliness. There are problems with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in redaction costs being assessed.’’
In Memphis, journalists have waited up to eight months for access to footage and have been asked to pay as much as $3,100 in hourly labor costs for video from a single case.
There’s often little uniformity when police agencies decide how much information to redact. Inconsistency appears even inside MPD: In one video, only a juvenile’s face is covered. In others, redactions are more extensive.
“There needs to be more clarity in the law,’’ said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the nonprofit opens in a new windowTennessee Coalition for Open Government, who said at times it’s unclear if police are trying to protect juveniles or witnesses, or whether the true intent involves “protecting the officer.’’
opens in a new windowTransparency advocates say access to bodycam footage can be improved through use of efficient redaction software, policies limiting the number of alterations and public-minded decisions like the opens in a new windowCalifornia Supreme Court’s ruling last year forbidding police agencies from passing the cost of redactions to the requester.
As for police in Memphis, Interim MPD Director James M. “Mike” Ryall would not agree to an interview for this story.
“All videos are redacted in accordance with state law and departmental policy,’’ MPD said in a written reply issued through spokesman Louis Brownlee.
As the video rolls, a troubling scene emerges: Officers seem to be exchanging heated words with several juveniles.
It’s May 23, 2018, and several MPD patrolmen have responded to a reported auto burglary near Wooddale Middle School, where they encounter a group of teens. As police body cameras record the action, one youth who’s been told to leave is walking away when he’s tackled from behind by officer Colin Berryhill.
Berryhill is then seen grappling with the youth.
The patrolman is positioned behind the juvenile. He’s grabbing the youth from behind.
“Stop choking me, cuz!’’ the juvenile yells. “Stop choking me, cuz!”
The juvenile’s exclamation can’t be heard, though, in the footage released by MPD. That’s because the audio has been silenced. In addition, a large, translucent redaction screen has been placed over the youth’s head. It obscures most of Berryhill’s arm as well.
But the youth’s utterance is reported in a case summary written by an internal investigator who saw the unedited footage and reported that Berryhill’s “right arm is seen around (the teen’s) neck.’’
Despite the obstruction in the released footage, opens in a new windowSmock, a medical doctor on staff with the Louisville Metro Police Department who specializes in the dangers of strangulation, said he’s troubled by the position of Berryhill’s arm on the teen’s neck and by the actions of another officer, Garrett O’Brien. He’s seen through a redaction screen grabbing another youth in the neck area with his right hand.
The two unarmed youths were detained for getting mouthy and disruptive after a friend had been put in the back of a squad car.
Smock said, in his opinion, the actions by Berryhill and O’Brien amount to unnecessary use of force.
“People die when pressure’s applied to the neck. If you were to turn the tables and you were to put pressure on an officer’s neck, the officer is justified in pulling out his gun and shooting you. It’s deadly force in response to deadly force.’’
Though Berryhill was cited by internal investigators for improperly using his Taser on the youth and for using unnecessary force on a subject who posed no immediate threat, he wasn’t written up for any violations involving application of pressure to a subject’s neck. Berryhill has since resigned. Investigators filed no disciplinary charges against O’Brien.
Asked if the maneuvers used by the officers violated MPD’s use-of-force policies, the agency said in a written response: “You can find our use of force policy online at opens in a new windowwww.MemphisPolice.org,’’ adding, “The evidence for each investigation is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.’’
Smock emphasized that he and the public need the fullest view possible to be able to assess police actions, whether they involve a high-profile murder trial like that of Chauvin’s or lesser, internal investigations like this one.
“I think in order for the public or anyone to judge, you need to have the unedited version,” Smock said, “including the audio portion, so you can assess: Is Mr. Floyd saying, ‘I can’t breathe?’ ’’
The Brechner Center’s LoMonte concurs.
“The public has a real interest in knowing what words were exchanged that caused these situations to escalate,’’ said LoMonte, who also watched the footage at the request of The Institute for Public Service Reporting.
Yet, over and over again, police agencies across the country release edited footage that makes it difficult to contextualize police actions and assess when officers act responsibly and when they go too far:
- The Minneapolis Park Police quickly opens in a new windowreleased some bodycam footage last year in the days following Floyd’s death, but it was so heavily edited – sound muted and large, black blocks placed over the bodies of witnesses – as to appear almost inscrutable, critics said.
- Attorneys at Georgetown University’s Civil Rights Clinic leveled similar criticisms last year when District of Columbia police finally released an edited snippet of footage showing the 2018 officer-involved opens in a new windowshooting death of Marqueese Altson.
- Tempe, Arizona police were criticized last year for opens in a new windowblurring all bodycam footage requested by the public on the grounds it lacked personnel to selectively redact video.
“Agencies frequently do over-redact bodycam video,’’ said opens in a new windowAdam A. Marshall, a senior staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Promise of transparency
And that’s the great irony of America’s body camera movement, Marshall says. Bodycam programs were built to promote transparency and public trust, yet costly, heavily edited footage that takes months and sometimes even years to get is not promoting transparency or public trust.
“The public has been subject to ‘bait and switch’ in a lot of situations because this transparency premise that bodycams were based on has not been borne out,’’ Marshall said.
“We see in many cases that bodycams are a great boon for law enforcement and for prosecutors, but not for the press and the public. And, you know, ultimately the public is paying hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars for this technology. But we’re not seeing the results of it. We’re not seeing the corresponding transparency that we were promised.’’
Public demand for body cameras grew nationally in 2014 following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, both unarmed Black men killed by police. By 2016, nearly half of the country’s 15,328 general-purpose law enforcement agencies had opens in a new windowobtained body cameras. The demand led Congress to opens in a new windowappropriate $112.5 million between 2016 and 2020 for more police agencies to acquire more of the so-called body-worn cameras, the small, portable video cameras that officers pin to their chests and activate during citizen encounters.
Following the 2015 police shooting death in Memphis of another unarmed Black man, opens in a new windowDarrius Stewart, MPD entered a $9.4 million bodycam deal with Taser International, which has since rebranded itself as Axon.
Over the past year, the city increased the number of deployed bodycams among MPD’s 2,100 commissioned officers from 1,779 to 2,000, including 164 cameras for use by sergeants.
Detectives now wear them, too.
For years, MPD had been opens in a new windowreluctant to video- or audio-record custodial interrogations of homicide suspects. But now, not only are detectives using fixed cameras, “body cameras were added to existing technology within interview rooms to ensure documentation and provide a fuller picture for prosecution,’’ budget documents state.
Transparency is baked into MPD’s Policy and Procedures Manual. It says bodycams add “further clarity and transparency” and help “improve community relations’’ with “an objective record that can … confirm valid allegations’’ and “assist in disproving false allegations.”
Indeed, bodycam footage has helped MPD internal investigators build cases against several officers including Martin Brooks, who resigned following an October 2016 opens in a new windowbaton beating of a citizen.
Conversely, footage has led to the dismissal of a number of citizen complaints deemed bogus. An investigation by The Institute last summer found that video led to the opens in a new windowdismissal of a series of use-of-force complaints at MPD — with officers listed as “exonerated,’’ a term virtually absent from reports in 2015 prior to the advent of bodycam video.
“People are making accusations that aren’t necessarily true,’’ then-police labor union president Mike Williams said of the development. “Once they look at the bodycam footage, it shows that the police officers … didn’t do anything wrong.’’
When police want, they can move quickly to release footage depicting officers in a favorable light.
Within days of a shooting last month in New York City’s Times Square, police released video of an officer’s valiant effort to aide a 4-year-old girl struck by gunfire.
“… The dedication on NY’s finest knows no bounds,’’ New York Deputy Police Commissioner John Miller tweeted shortly after the incident.
Steep costs, long waits
Yet police agencies often are slow to release footage documenting controversial or abusive actions.
For years, New York police resisted releasing footage of the opens in a new windowshooting of Susan Muller, a mentally ill woman killed by police inside her home in 2018.
Just last month, the Associated Press published previously unseen bodycam footage involving the May 2019 death of motorist opens in a new windowRonald Greene following a high-speed chase in Louisiana. The Louisiana State Police had withheld the footage showing troopers allegedly beating and electroshocking Greene with a stun gun as he was handcuffed on the ground.
In Memphis, as an internal investigation dragged on, the Institute for Public Service Reporting waited eight months for footage involving a series Taser incidents by officer opens in a new windowColin Berryhill and only got access following a public records suit.
Police are allowed to withhold information in active investigations, in part, because premature release of details could compromise the apprehension of suspects or jeopardize other sensitive elements. But the Reporters Committee’s Marshall said withholding bodycam footage of police actions “simply doesn’t make sense’’ in most cases because the suspects — law enforcement officers — already are known, and often have already seen the footage themselves.
But getting footage from closed cases also often involves long waits.
The Institute waited eight months for footage of a teenager’s claim he was beaten by officers in a Hickory Hill apartment complex in January 2019. It waited five months for video of a patrolman suspended for 17 days for punching and kicking a handcuffed prisoner in May 2018. It waited another four months for footage of a patrolman repeatedly punching a mentally disabled man in the face outside the Peabody hotel on Union Avenue.
Such long waiting periods don’t serve the public interest, Marshall said.
“What you don’t want to have happen is for the video to be withheld for so long that when it’s finally released, it’s kind of inconsequential to the public discourse,’’ he said.
Obtaining footage often involves steep fees, too.
opens in a new windowLas Vegas police made headlines last year with fees equivalent to about $70 an hour in labor charges to produce footage. The sheriff’s office in opens in a new windowWashoe County, Nevada, said in December it planned to start charging $200 an hour. Police in Sarasota, Florida, once asked for opens in a new window$18,000 to produce 84 hours of footage — at a rate of $214 an hour.
Redactions are inserted into footage at MPD by nine full-time and three part-time civilian video analysts. Those analysts scour requested footage to conceal items ranging from juvenile identities, witness faces, spoken phone numbers or home addresses, dispatch communications and images of police laptop and smartphone screens.
News organizations and individuals who request MPD bodycam footage are charged a fee equal to the hourly wage of the analyst processing the request. Though wages vary, a typical fee is $22.99 an hour. Under state law, the first hour is free.
Those hourly fees can quickly mount.
The Institute was billed $989 last year to obtain footage of a 2016 baton beating. It paid another $713 for video for the Union Avenue incident.
The Institute has been asked to pay as much as $2,276 in one case and $3,104 in another.
“For a local news organization, a bill for two thousand dollars might as well be a denial,’’ the Brechner Center’s LoMonte said.
The Institute avoided the first charge by narrowing its request and the second by asking to inspect video rather than obtain copies. Under Tennessee law, governmental agencies can’t charge fees to merely review records.
As difficult as the process can be for news organizations to navigate, it’s even tougher for many citizens.
Activist Paul Garner said he once helped a South Memphis woman on a fixed income try to get footage of a police encounter. The incident involved “a really traumatic experience of police dragging her out of her house,’’ Garner said. But helping the woman explore possible recourse by obtaining footage was “like pulling hen’s teeth,’’ he said.
Then working for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, Garner helped the woman file a public records request, then waited a few months before learning MPD wanted more than $300 for the footage.
As a workaround, Garner arranged to inspect or simply watch the video without getting copies. The woman had no transportation. So, Garner drove her down to MPD’s Inspectional Services offices. But a lieutenant they were supposed to meet wasn’t there that day, he said. So, they went back another day.
Even then, police wouldn’t let Garner go into the offices with the woman. She came back out in tears.
“It just had the effect of kind of retraumatizing her,’’ Garner said.
“Anybody who doesn’t have any kind of background in navigating government processes … it’s next to impossible.’’
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute.