(THE VERGE) Late last month, The New York Times published a piece, headlined “Hollywood-Style Heroism Is Latest Trend in Police Videos,” about police body camera footage that depicts police officers as paragons of bravery. One video, from the Hamden Police Department in Connecticut, showed an officer pulling a troubled man away from the edge of a building. Another, from the Topeka Police Department in Kansas, showed an officer rescuing a drowning boy from a pond. These videos were not released at the request of journalists or civilians hoping to shed light on police activity. They were instead released by police employees as counter programming — a way to characterize cops positively when tales of “bad apples” overtook the news cycle. “The chief talked to me about how Topeka was really getting beat up in the news with some shootings, some homicides,” an officer told the Times. “Topeka really needed a good story.”
Cops deserve credit when they do good, but these positive police videos emerge as states work to keep less flattering videos hidden.
North Carolina, for example, passed legislation last year excluding body camera video from the public record, so footage is not available through North Carolina’s Public Records Act. That means civilians have no right to view police recordings in the Tar Heel state unless their voice or image was captured in the video.
Louisiana also exempts body camera video from public records laws.
South Carolina will only release body camera footage to criminal defendants and the subjects of recordings.
Kansas classifies body camera video as “criminal investigation documents” available only when investigations are closed. The Topeka Police Department may have wanted positive public relations with the release of its pond rescue video, but if a news outlet had requested that video through Kansas’ Open Records Act, that request would’ve likely been denied.
This opaque state of affairs was not how body cameras were originally pitched. Body cameras have been available to police since at least 2007 when Steve Ward, a salesman for Taser International, broke off from the company, now known as Axon Enterprise. He then formed his own body camera company, Vievu. But body cameras weren’t considered a necessary police tool until the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
As people around the world tried to piece together what occurred in Ferguson between a dead man and a living officer, civilians and police alike began to understand the benefits of body cameras. Representatives of Black Lives Matter called for more body cameras alongside major police organizations. It was a virtually unanimous agreement at first: body cams would hold both police and civilians accountable. But there was a pact underlying those mutual calls — a tacit agreement that taxpayer-purchased body camera videos should be available to taxpayers.
That pact was best explained by police leaders themselves. In a 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum, the group’s executive director, Chuck Wexler, wrote that “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.”