Above photo: Jason Kao/ProPublica.
Ten Years Later, Most Of The Footage Is Kept From Public View.
In the last 10 years, taxpayers have spent millions to outfit police officers across the country with body-worn cameras in what was sold as a new era of transparency and accountability. But a survey by ProPublica shows that when civilians die at the hands of police, the public usually never sees the footage.
At least 1,201 people were killed in 2022 by law enforcement officers, about 100 deaths a month, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit research group that tracks police killings. ProPublica examined the 101 deaths that occurred in June 2022, a time frame chosen because enough time had elapsed that investigations could reasonably be expected to have concluded. The cases involved 131 law enforcement agencies in 34 states.
In 79 of those deaths, ProPublica confirmed that body-worn camera video exists. But more than a year later, authorities or victims’ families had released the footage of only 33 incidents.
Philadelphia signed a $12.5 million contract in 2017 to equip its entire police force with cameras. Since then, at least 27 people have been killed by Philadelphia police, according to Mapping Police Violence, but in only two cases has body-camera video been released to the public.
ProPublica’s review shows that withholding body-worn camera footage from the public has become so entrenched in some cities that even pleas from victims’ families don’t serve to shake the video loose.
In Savannah, Georgia, for instance, neither Saudi Arai Lee’s family nor the public has been allowed to see the footage of the fatal shooting of the 31-year-old Black man.
Savannah police and Georgia state investigators say Lee was walking down a street June 24, 2022, when an officer stopped to question him. Lee told the officer he had a permit to carry a gun and pulled out his wallet. He lifted his shirt to show the gun. Then, for an undisclosed reason, the officer began chasing Lee, and shot and killed him. It was the fifth killing by Savannah police in a year. The agencies won’t release the footage, they said, because the killing is still under investigation.
Lee’s uncle, Timothy Lee, arrived on the scene minutes after the shooting and spoke to witnesses. “He was reaching for his wallet and that’s when the man shot him,” Timothy Lee said people told him. “We want justice. We think he should go to jail for the rest of his life for what he did.”
On the same day, halfway across the country, Christopher D. Kelley was killed by police in Topeka, Kansas. His family also wants the footage of his killing to be made public, according to their attorney, LaRonna Lassiter Saunders. The family and lawyer have seen the video and believe that if it were made public it could serve to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Kelley, a 38-year-old Black Marine veteran, was in the midst of a mental health crisis, Saunders said, when police found him behind an Amtrak station, standing on a pile of rocks and holding a knife. More than a dozen officers surrounded him with guns drawn and spent almost an hour trying to convince Kelley to drop the knife, even firing nonlethal bean bags at him, according to a report by state investigators. Then, according to the district attorney, who cleared police of wrongdoing, Kelley “raised the knife and charged” toward police, prompting three officers to open fire. If the public saw exactly what happened, Kelley’s family has said, maybe the next time Topeka police are called to help someone in a mental health crisis, they won’t end up killing them.
“If you want to create transparency and accountability and to restore the trust that this community has lost … release the doggone tapes,” Kelley’s sister Christian said at a press conference in February.
The Promise Of Body-Worn Cameras
After Brown’s killing, the Department of Justice stepped up funding for police to buy body-worn cameras, providing more than $184 million over the next decade. By 2016, nearly half of 15,328 law enforcement agencies across the country, and 80% of police departments with more than 500 officers, had begun using the cameras, according to the Department of Justice. For many police officers in America today, body cameras are standard-issue equipment that they are supposed to turn on during most law enforcement activities.
The videos, advocates say, can help civilians fact-check the official account of what happened in a contentious incident, such as when police use force or take someone’s life.
“Law enforcement has the power of credibility on their side,” said Dawn Blagrove, an attorney with Emancipate North Carolina, a group that helps families get access to body-worn camera video. “Even though time and time again they are proved to be uncredible or unreliable, people still are disposed to believing whatever narrative law enforcement puts out.”
Sometimes the release of those videos can spur change. In the last two years, Raleigh, North Carolina, police banned no-knock warrants and adopted a de-escalation policy for encounters with people in a mental health crisis. The reforms were made, Blagrove said, because body-camera video helped document what police were doing wrong in such encounters so they could try to fix it.
Varying Disclosure Policies
Police departments involved in 14 of the June 2022 deaths that ProPublica reviewed released the body-camera footage because a department policy or a state or local law demanded it. The requirements vary. Seattle, for example, has a department policy calling for video to be released within 72 hours of a “critical incident,” while in California, a state law requires all departments make the footage public within 45 days.
The videos often begin with a brief introduction by an officer, followed by edited and redacted footage. Sometimes, they are accompanied by 911 recordings and video from dash cameras or drones. Other times they include stills of a weapon the victim allegedly carried. When Akron, Ohio, city leaders held a news conference to release video from the June 27 shooting of Jayland Walker, they included footage from eight officers, in accordance with a city law mandating such disclosure within a week of an incident.
“It is clear what our community wants is to be able to review the information for themselves,” said Mayor Dan Horrigan at the news conference. “It is our commitment to be as open and transparent as we can be.”
The videos showed that officers shot 25-year-old Walker 46 times in under 10 seconds, sparking protests. In April, a grand jury decided the officers should not be indicted on criminal charges. Walker’s family has filed a civil suit against the city.
But Akron isn’t the norm.
We filed public records requests for the video in the remaining 46 cases and in 26 were told it could not be publicly released or did not receive any response. In 14 cases, law enforcement agencies offered the video for a fee, ranging from $19 in Lowndes County, Georgia, to nearly $16,000 in Hillsborough County, Florida. Six departments eventually gave ProPublica the footage for free.
The lack of disclosure undermines the promise that equipping police with body cameras would increase transparency around fatal police encounters and hold officers to account for bad or criminal behavior.
President Barack Obama made body-worn cameras a centerpiece of his police reform efforts after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Police claimed they were acting in self-defense, while witnesses said that was not true. Weeks of protests ensued. It was one in a series of police killings in which the officers’ stories differed from witness accounts or videos taken by civilians nearby. Brown’s family, advocates and even some law enforcement leaders called for the widespread use of body-worn cameras in hopes they would help restore trust between police and a public that had lost faith.
The Justice Department allocated millions to help departments across the country outfit officers with the technology.
“They were wholly sold as an accountability tool to reassure people that police would be held accountable for their actions or for what they are doing while operating under the powers of the state,” said Hans Menos, who advises police departments with the Center for Policing Equity and formerly headed the Police Advisory Commission in Philadelphia, an early adopter of body cameras. “If we don’t provide that level of transparency, what we’ve really done is made people pay for something that they don’t get any tangible benefit out of.”
Some departments that have disclosure policies don’t always follow them. The New York Police Department, the largest in the country, is supposed to release video within 30 days of a critical incident. But a ProPublica review of the department’s data found that of 380 such incidents since the policy was enacted, the department released videos only 64 times, and only twice within its own 30-day time frame. A spokesperson for the NYPD said that privacy concerns, local laws or unspecified department policies kept it from releasing more of the videos. “The NYPD remains wholly committed to its policy of releasing such recordings as quickly and responsibly as circumstances and the law dictate,” the spokesperson wrote.
Many other departments — including 11 from ProPublica’s June 2022 review — said they cannot disclose body-camera footage while incidents are under investigation.
That’s the reason Savannah police cited when they denied requests from ProPublica to see the video of Lee’s killing.
Advocates for more transparency, though, say making video available to the family and the public should happen regardless of how an investigation is proceeding.
“The point of the tape being released is expediency in getting it to the public,” said Juandalynn Givan, a state lawmaker in Alabama who has pushed for more transparency there. “You might not have convened a grand jury for six or eight months.”
State Law Blocks The Way
In many states, the roadblocks to disclosure are encoded into the law.
In Pennsylvania, for example, a law passed in 2017 — after the state supreme court ruled body-worn camera footage is a public record — requires requests for video to be made in person or via certified mail within 60 days of an incident. And police and prosecutors are given broad discretion to withhold video if they see it as evidence in an investigation. “It actually serves more as a block to accountability and transparency than it does to foster release of information,” said Terry Mutchler, an attorney who has helped clients obtain video through court orders.
That’s what allows Philadelphia, one of the largest departments in the country, to routinely withhold video.
A spokesperson said the department is “committed to transparency and accountability” and added that “the legal framework governing the release of BWC footage is designed to balance the public’s right to information with the need to protect ongoing investigations and sensitive details.”
In Alabama, Kansas and South Carolina, the law makes footage confidential by default, often classifying it as an investigative record akin to a police interrogation, which can be released at the discretion of police or a judge.
Alabama’s Law Enforcement Agency cited state law when it refused ProPublica’s request for video of the June 9, 2022, fatal shooting of Robert Tyler White by an off-duty Rainbow City police officer. Police say White tried to enter the officer’s vehicle and an elementary school. White’s family has said he suffered from depression and may have been suicidal but does not think he was trying to harm others.
Kansas law allows families of victims to view footage within 20 days of a request, but there is no requirement for police to release it to the public.
ProPublica’s request for footage of Kelley’s killing was denied under that law. Releasing the video, the city of Topeka said, “is not in the public’s interest.”
But Kelley’s family members, who have seen the video, want it to be made public because they say it highlights how police mishandled a mental health emergency. Saunders, the family’s attorney, says the video shows police surrounded Kelley and unnecessarily escalated a situation. “After 50-plus minutes of him asking them to leave him alone, him trying to run away … you can see he just got to a point where he was already broke,” Saunders said.
She said he did not charge at police with a knife, as the department has claimed. “He tried to make a run for this little path that they had made, but as soon as he headed down that path they shot him several times,” she said
State investigators and Topeka police declined to comment on what the video showed and directed questions to the district attorney’s office, which did not respond to interview requests. In September 2022, the district attorney cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
Four months after Kelley’s death, Topeka police killed another man whose family had called 911 because he was having a mental breakdown. Saunders, who has seen body camera video from that incident as well, said it showed police chased Taylor Lowery and surrounded him as he held a wrench and stood next to a knife. Five officers then shot and killed him. The district attorney found the killing was justified, saying Lowery had tried to carjack someone and was a threat to police officers. Lowery’s family disagrees and wants video of that killing to be released to the public.
Having the public see what transpired, Saunders said, could spark reforms like redirecting 911 calls to mental health crisis teams rather than police. But, she said, that first requires the public to see the video that contradicts the official narrative. “They’re making it look like these two men were violent or attacking, and that was not the case,” Saunders said. “If anything, they were under attack, they were retreating, they were running, they were trying to get away. And so they [the families] just want the public to see the real truth.”
North Carolina law requires a court order for footage to be released to the public. ProPublica found three killings in June 2022 for which video exists but has not been released, and in each case police denied our request, citing that law.
Even families must petition a judge to get a copy of video. Without a court order, they have to ask police to let them view the footage at police stations. Police chiefs, district attorneys and a host of other law enforcement personnel, possibly even the same officers involved in the killing, can legally be in the room and have the power to choose which parts of a video a relative can see based on their interpretation of the statute.
“There is no way for you to watch the video without essentially going into the belly of the beast,” said Dawn Blagrove, who crisscrosses the state to accompany relatives to police stations to view footage. Their goal, she said, is “making sure that when people are having to relive, or see for the first time, a loved one taking their last breath, that they don’t do that without some support, that they don’t do that alone.”
In the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, advocates in North Carolina attempted to reform its body-camera law as part of a broad criminal justice reform bill that included provisions for releasing video to the public, said Blagrove, who served on the governor’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which drafted the bill. “Once they got it into the General Assembly, the real substantive parts of those recommendations that would have created real change were gutted,” said Blagrove.
Instead, changes to the law made accessing video even more difficult, requiring a court order. The fallout from the law, Blagrove said, has been devastating. “It is just a system that is designed around protecting law enforcement and, simultaneously, creating a chilling effect on friends and family who want to get some answers as to how and why their loved one has died.”
In many of these states, lobbying groups representing law enforcement officers and prosecutors have played a decisive role in keeping video out of public reach. The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, for instance, the reforms Blagrove and other advocates were hoping to enact into law after 2020. In Alabama, lobbying on behalf of police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys helped block two proposed laws that would have allowed the public to request video. Law enforcement lobbying groups have also thwarted efforts at reforms in Kansas since 2015.
Without uniform state policies in place for when video must be released to the public, Blagrove and other advocates say police departments have been able to selectively release footage to support their narrative, while often hiding images that might be embarrassing or worse.
This January, police in Raleigh said they killed Daniel Turcios, a Hispanic man they encountered on the interstate after a traffic accident, because he was high on drugs and threatening them with a knife. Police released an edited video supporting that narrative. But after public pressure, they released the full video along with a toxicology report, which showed something very different, Blagrove said. “They chased him and they shot him and killed him in front of his family,” Blagrove said. “They had him written off as this knife-wielding, drug-induced man, and by the time we were finished with it, it was like a family man was shot in front of his children.”
Alabama lawmakers adopted North Carolina’s law, almost word for word, this June.