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Body cam videos were supposed to build trust. But public has no power in their release

Body cameras were embraced as a way to help build trust between police and communities.

But in reality the public has little power to see the video if law enforcement agencies want to keep it out of the public view. State and federal laws limit what police release to the public in some cases.

Officials with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office defer to the wishes of the police.

“We prefer that evidence in a criminal case not be released before its review in a court proceeding,” said Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson. “However, we always abide by the decisions of local police chiefs who determine a need to release dash or body camera footage from incidents in their jurisdictions.”

Fort Worth police released video Thursday showing the shooting of JaQuavion Slaton, a 20-year-old assault suspect with a felony warrant who was inside a truck parked in a back yard.

Mayor Betsy Price and interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said the release of the video shows the department’s commitment to transparency.

Police showed the video after days of protests and demands that police release the footage of Sunday’s shooting. Persistent and energetic protesting is one of the few tools the public can use to encourage police to release video, according to Sakira Cook, justice reform program director for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Cook helped develop a policy scorecard for the use of body cameras. Updated in November 2017, it compares the body camera policies of 75 departments. Criteria is partially based on privacy, footage retention, officer discretion on when to record, and the public’s access to departmental policy.

Fort Worth’s department scored well on footage retention in 2017, but fair or poor on the other criteria.

“Fort Worth, in our view, has a lot of room for improvement,” Cook said.

For example, the Fort Worth Police Department did not do a good job in 2017 of regulating body camera activation, according to the scorecard. The department allowed police too much discretion concerning when they could turn the cameras off, according to the scorecard.

The goal of the camera is to show what happened, so giving officers an out when they fail to record undermines accountability and legitimacy, Cook said.

It’s the law

Not everything is left to police discretion. A lot of police policy is dictated by state law, according to Sgt. Justin Seabourn, Fort Worth police.

The Fort Worth body camera policy mirrors parts of the state’s open records act, its body-worn camera statutes as well as other parts of state and federal law, Seabourn said.

Police often withhold the public release of video evidence to avoid tainting jury pools or to protect the integrity of an investigation, Seabourn said.

According to Texas law, criminal investigations and related administrative matters must be completed before body cam footage is released unless “the law enforcement agency determines that the release furthers a law enforcement purpose.”

As police gain experience and become more comfortable with the process, the reluctance of law enforcement to release video footage should subside, said Matthew Simpson, deputy political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

For example, initial law enforcement concerns that the release of video could taint a jury pool appear to be overblown, he said.

“I’m not aware of any case where body cam footage has ever misled a jury,” Simpson said. “I don’t think you really gain anything by keeping this information from the public.”

Eventually, Simpson said, the video always emerges. The question now is how long should people be expected to wait. Simpson said more research on the implications of early video release should be done and policies should be assessed to determine if they can be made more neutral.

State lawmakers have been willing to revisit this issue. This past session, they passed a bill allowing people depicted in videos to view the recordings.

“Where the law started out was much too limited, but now the pendulum is swinging back,” Simpson said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to restrict the release of the video.”

Because the police have almost total control of what gets released and when it gets released, they are open to charges of hiding information and not being truthful, Simpson said.

Video evidence is a tool that can be used to build trust, but it is not the same thing as building trust, he said.

“The whole trust building effort is contingent on law enforcement being trustworthy,” Simpson said.

In the beginning

When Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, introduced body camera legislation, he said his goal was to add transparency to the criminal investigation process.

The law, adopted in 2015, provided funding to police departments that needed aid purchasing body camera systems, and gave discretion to agencies on when to release the video they collected.

Police officers and residents had been involved in shootings, and West said he believed that video of similar incidents would help independent fact-finders.

West said he was called “everything but a child of God by law enforcement,” as he steered the legislation through the Senate.

“Now, many in law enforcement won’t leave the station” without their body camera, West said.

There was a lot of give and take with law enforcement concerning the body camera bill, West said.

“Some of the issues were not addressed to my full satisfaction,” he said. “The question in my mind was getting something on the books as opposed to nothing. Without the support of law enforcement, the bill would not have moved.”

As a former prosecutor and defense attorney, West said, he could see the point behind the concerns of law enforcement personnel. But he also is sensitive to the concerns of some communities. Video footage from law enforcement cannot restore trust, he said.

“Trust is not there,” West said. “The image that law enforcement has, particularly when it comes to African-American men and youth, is that there is a hair trigger when it comes to using deadly force. It’s something that we have been dealing with every summer. Not only is it a law enforcement problem, it’s a community problem.”

West said he is not sure that the de-escalation training that every officer should be getting has taken hold yet.

Police contact with those suffering from mental health issues is also an area of concern for the senator.

“Are police officers trained to recognize that conduct and take appropriate action as opposed to using deadly force?” West asked. “There is still a lot of work to do in these areas. We need to be able to balance law enforcement needs with the public’s right to know.”

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