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Criminal Justice and Policing

Reform Needed to Make Bodycam Footage More Accessible, Critics Say

Transparency advocates say police need limits on fees, excessive redaction

Shelby County Sheriff’s Office began rolling out body cameras in 2018. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)

More money and more resources.

That’s Philip M. Stinson’s prescription for making police body camera programs more transparent.

Police agencies can reduce the steep costs and long waiting periods often incurred by the public in obtaining footage by devoting more general tax dollars and resources into editing programs needed to redact video to protect juvenile identities and other privacy concerns.

“There’s long waits because they don’t have budgeted into the county budget, and the municipal police budget, the personnel to be able to get all these files prepared,’’ said Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who studies police misconduct.

Improved editing software along with policies reducing or eliminating direct costs to citizens also would help make bodycam programs more transparent, experts say.

But for Stinson, the bottom line in bodycam transparency is that police agencies must staff enough personnel to promptly fill the demand for footage. Too often, agencies lack the manpower or assign people who have numerous additional job duties in addition to processing footage, he said.

Adam A. Marshall agrees.

“Over the last few years, bodycams were quickly adopted by many, many law enforcement agencies without much or any thought to the downstream consequences of what the transparency mandate would be,’’ said Marshall, a senior staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“And, unfortunately, that’s led to a situation where you have backlogs and delays and the agency is trying to charge a huge amount of costs.’’

The Memphis Police Department wouldn’t agree to an interview for this story. But the agency said in a written response to questions that it employs nine fulltime and three part-time video analysts to redact footage requested by the public. Those analysts perform “other duties in addition to public records requests,’’ according to the response released through MPD spokesman Louis Brownlee.

MPD declined to detail the nature of those other duties or state what percentage of analysts’ duties involve redacting footage.

However, a June 2020 memo posted on MPD’s website says the Video Analysis Unit was created in 2017 and is “staffed by civilians to assist with quality control, investigator requests, and FOIAs’’ or Freedom of Information Act requests.

MPD indicated in its statement that the full cost of redacting footage — a fee that often totals $22.99 an hour and is designed to cover the wage of the analyst doing the editing — is passed on to the requester.

Asked if MPD has “budgeted any money for the review and redaction of body camera footage’’ or if the cost is “passed on entirely to the requester,’’ the agency replied: “There is no budget line item allocated for the production of public records requests.’’

MPD passes on the cost of the video analysts’ wages to requestors in accordance with a 2008 Tennessee law that allows government agencies to charge hourly labor fees in exchange for producing copies of public records. Under the law, the first hour is free.

That fee system allowed MPD last year to request $3,104 for video connected to a teen’s claim he was beaten by police and another $2,276 for footage of an officer stepping on the chest of an auto accident victim. 

Stinson said he’s proposed that the federal government could help reduce such prohibitive fees by providing funding to local police agencies to underwrite the cost of redaction.

The California Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s police agencies cannot charge fees for redacting bodycam footage. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit by the National Lawyers Guild protesting a $3,000 fee to redact footage of a Black Lives Matter protest in Berkeley.

“Allowing government agencies to charge potentially steep sums for mere redactions that must be routinely performed by municipal employees for (public records) requests — fees that could very well stand as a practical obstacle to the public’s right of access — would hinder that purpose,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote in a concurring opinion.

In addition, a California law that took effect in 2019 requires police agencies to release video of officer-involved shootings and other “critical” use-of-force incidents within 45 days during active investigations, though that can be delayed if police can show it would compromise an investigation. 

Colorado requires release of footage within 21 days if a complaint is received, but that, too, can be delayed.

Short of such law changes, police can speed up release of footage by simply opting to redact less, say transparency advocates.

“One partial solution is just to take a lighter hand on the redaction switch,’’ said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “People are being charged a lot of money for redactions that sometimes aren’t legally necessary at all. You know, that’s really what’s causing a lot of the clogging problem.’’

Marshall of the Reporters Committee agrees.

“Many of these incidents take place on public streets where there’s no expectation of privacy. They show things that any bystander who happened to be there could also video or see with their own eyes,’’ he said.

“… They may need to do some redactions, but they should be as narrowly tailored as possible.’’

Marshall said officials can also realize improved efficiency through “great and constantly evolving” software like SmartRedaction, a commercial video editing tool developed for police agencies. Its features include “Skin Blur,’’ a function that automatically obscures faces, and “Interactive,” which allows custom redactions.

MPD did not respond to a question about the type of redaction software it uses.

Some redacting issues, such as those involving juveniles are especially thorny, however.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation in 2017 that treats bodycam footage shot inside of schools as confidential. Additionally, longstanding state law makes records about delinquency confidential.

Yet authorities moved quickly this spring to release extensive footage of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson Jr. on April 12 inside Knoxville’s Austin-East Magnet High School.

Nine days later, on April 21, Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen held a news conference announcing the shooting was justified because Thompson, armed with a handgun, had fired first. Allen released body camera footage that redacted Thompson’s face yet clearly showed the rest of him as he encountered officers inside a school bathroom. Still shots released from the footage included a red circle drawn around the bulge in Thompson’s hoodie pouch revealing the outline of the handgun he’d secreted there.

The state’s bodycam law sunsets next year when lawmakers may want to consider more latitude and uniformity regarding issues such as juvenile confidentiality, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

“If all the public gets to see unredacted is when the video shows that police did the right thing … they’re going to think: Why are they releasing some and not releasing the other?’’ she said.

“The public sort of gets this pattern. We understand it. We’re not dumb.’’

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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