In 2014, activists rallied for body cameras after a brutal summer of officer-involved shootings. More officers than ever are now wearing cameras, but who gets to see the footage? Upturn, a DC-based policy think tank, recently found that body camera footage of fatal police shootings isn’t consistently released to the public. Researchers reviewed 105 cases where body cameras likely recorded footage of officers killing civilians. In 40 of those cases, the footage was never made public. When it is released, it’s usually about a week after the shooting.
Building on a Washington Post project tracking how many people are killed by police each year, Upturn found that at least one body camera likely recorded 105 out of a documented 987 fatal police shootings in 2017. Of the 105 that were recorded, 40 were never released to the public. Of the remaining 65, three were released the same day, with the median release time being nine days after the shooting.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the longest wait time for a recording to be released was in the shooting of Andrew Byrd in Pueblo, Colorado. Footage was released 276 days (or about nine months) after officers shot him as he sped away in a stolen vehicle.
Looking at body camera footage from a macro view, trends emerge. As Upturn found, police chiefs and district attorneys are usually the ones postponing the release of footage, arguing that videos may influence public opinion, biasing the jury pool and impacting investigations. Upturn counters that, because footage is released in most of these cases, there’s little evidence they negatively impact investigations.
Body camera policies are vary widely across the country. In Texas, body camera footage can only be released after all relevant investigations have concluded, while Chicago and Los Angeles police are currently weighing 60- and 45-day release periods, respectively.
Ultimately, Upturn maintains its longstanding recommendation that state and local laws should mandate releasing body camera footage within a certain timeframe after a use-of-force incident.
“If we believe that body-worn cameras should shine a light on the most critical cases .... mandatory footage release policies should be considered a prerequisite for every department with a camera program,” the report concludes.