As APD continues to develop policy for body-worn cameras, legal issues over access to footage worry advocates

A window of the Anchorage Police Department headquarters overlooking 4th Avenue on May 7, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Police Department is still working to implement its body-worn camera policy, nearly a year after voters approved it.

The department has already purchased the cameras, but what has taken months is figuring out how they will be used and how the public can get the footage.

the draft policy undergoes a lengthy review process and is subject to criticism.

The Alaska Black Caucus was one of the main organizations lobbying for Anchorage police to start wearing body cameras. But Chair Celeste Hodge-Growden said the draft policy was not what she had in mind.

“It’s supposed to be about our community and protecting not just the police, but the citizens,” she said. “And right now the way they want this policy to play out is that it just protects the police.”

One of Hodge-Growden’s main concerns is that there is no clear path for body camera footage to be made public in the event of high-interest events, such as shootings and fouls. of the font.

Hodge-Growden is not alone in her concerns. She and other supporters say the purpose of the body cameras is to increase transparency and accountability in Anchorage police. They say the draft policy does not go far enough. On the other side, the city says it must abide by state privacy laws.

READ MORE: Anchorage police have no timeline for implementing body-worn cameras as current draft policy comes under scrutiny

Disagreements over the broadcast of camera images

In its current form, body camera footage of Anchorage police officers would not automatically be made public in the most interesting cases. Instead, members of the public would have to file document requests, which can take months and cost thousands of dollars. Even after that, footage could be redacted at the discretion of the police department and the city.

Hodge-Growden said when advocates were able to get body cameras approved and purchased during last year’s election, they thought it would be easier to get those footage.

“We finally got the funding, and now there’s this,” Hodge-Growden said. “It just seems like every time you turn around, there’s something different. The playing field changes.

City prosecutors say one of the main reasons they can’t automatically release the footage has to do with state privacy laws.

“There is extensive federal and state case law analyzing individual privacy rights in relation to the release of government documents,” according to an email from Anchorage Legal Department officials.

As a result, they say, the dissemination of images should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Anchorage attorney Andy Erickson, who followed the process, said state privacy laws could prevent some footage from being released. But he thinks the municipality is too strict in its legal point of view.

“The right to privacy gives way when there is a matter that turns the matter from a purely private personal matter into a public matter,” he said. “The Alaska Supreme Court has said, when a case affects the public, it loses its entirely private character.”

An example used by proponents of body-worn cameras is the fatal 2019 shooting of Bishar Hassan by Anchorage police. The shooting was caught on a police dash cam, however, the footage only became widely publicized recently, after attorneys for Hassan’s family gave the footage to NBC News.

In a federal legal filing, city attorneys asked a judge to order the attorneys to stop publishing the footage. As part of the filing, the attorneys wrote that even if the camera had been obtained through a recording request, they would still have redacted certain graphic portions of the footage to protect the privacy of Hassan’s family.

Erickson argued that since the shooting happened in a public place, he doesn’t think the right to privacy applies.

“When walking around in public, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy for a police officer who approaches you with a body-worn camera,” Erickson said. “And the same would happen with a police shooting or an incident on a public road.”

Erickson said the city would have a better case against airing footage involving private homes or more intimate encounters.

The police department says it is working on refining its policy before taking it to the police union.

“Not great, but it’s good”

Nusret Sahin is a professor at the University of Stockton in New Jersey who has researched body-worn camera policies across the country as they are implemented.

He described Anchorage’s draft body camera policy as “not so great, but that’s fine.”

Sahin said one area of ​​concern is that there is no section of the policy that requires officers to notify residents that the camera is on. He also thinks officers should have clearer instructions on when to turn on the cameras, instead of leaving it entirely up to their discretion.

Sahin agrees with the city that there are valid privacy issues with the automatic release of images to the public without deletion and before an investigation is complete.

But he said there are ways to be more transparent with victims and their families. Sahin is currently working on research with New Jersey body-worn cameras to better improve transparency.

“Our strategy to deal with this is to make the footage available to people who were recorded and who were there that day with the interaction with the police,” Sahin said.

In these cases, even if an investigation is ongoing, the people in the footage could make up their own minds about their own privacy concerns and may potentially have the right to release the footage themselves.

Sahin said part of his research was aimed at helping the Justice Department create federal guidelines on police-worn camera footage, so the process for releasing footage is clearer and works less on a case-by-case basis. case.

“We’re going to get an idea of ​​whether the public expects to access these videos,” Sahin said. “So we’re going to get an idea of ​​the public’s expectations.”

Hodge-Growden, of the Alaska Black Caucus, said while she’s always pushed for the automatic release of footage involving shootings and police misconduct, she’s open to the compromise of releasing footage to people involved in police incidents.

“As long as those people who have a vested interest, like maybe the mother of a young man who was killed, and they have the right to do with the video what protects them as a family,” Hodge said. -Growden.

Other parts of the policy she would like to see include requiring all officers to wear cameras and for the cameras to always be on.

Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said the department will continue to seek public comment on the policy through March 16. After that, he says he will take the final draft policy to the police union.

The police department has yet to announce a date when police will begin wearing the cameras.

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