(June 16, 2021) Body-worn camera footage provides an independent record of police behavior that, when made public, can reveal abuses of power, challenge police narratives, and can contribute to accountability. And while there are numerous examples that are a testament to the power of bodycams, we have also seen numerous examples of why simply acquiring and deploying body-worn cameras doesn’t always achieve this. Why? Because the policy must demand it.

The rules around how officers use body-worn cameras, and what happens to the footage, are vital to delivering accountability and protecting privacy. Without these, cameras can create greater harm and even be used as a police propaganda and surveillance tool, instead.

The Anchorage Police Department must adopt a body-worn camera program that will deliver accountability and transparency. We believe that, as the APD collects input from community members and stakeholder groups, the end result of its process must be a policy that fulfills this central promise of body-worn cameras — that they can be tools for greater public oversight of law enforcement, especially when force is used, and engender greater trust between the police and the Anchorage community. We offer several important ways APD can create a policy to achieve these goals.

1. How Anchorage got bodycams

Q.How Anchorage got bodycams
A.

In April, nearly 54 percent of Anchorage Municipality voters approved a ballot measure to fund body-worn cameras and other technology for the Anchorage Police Department. While Anchorage had considered body-worn cameras for years, funding was a recurring barrier. However, after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, police transparency and accountability gained renewed focus — including a renewed push to find funding for body cameras, which community members and groups like the Alaska Black Caucus had long been advocating for. Instead of directly funding cameras through the municipal budget, the Assembly voted to put the question before voters.

2. APD’s policy must ensure the timely public release of body camera footage in showing police use of force or alleged police misconduct.

Q.APD’s policy must ensure the timely public release of body camera footage in showing police use of force or alleged police misconduct.
A.

Incidents in which officers use force or where misconduct is alleged are central to accountability and transparency. But the APD’s draft policy does not describe how it will release footage in these cases, and would make it impossible to see footage where an officer’s conduct may be criminal. If APD is allowed to withhold critical footage, and release only footage that shows officers in a favorable light, then body cameras will go from being a tool for transparency and accountability to a tool for police propaganda.

This type of footage makes up a small percentage of all body-worn camera footage. But it is critical for helping the public determine if the way APD officers go about their jobs is effective, appropriate, and in the public’s interest. And releasing body camera footage can be done in a way that ensures people’s due process and privacy rights, while increasing public trust. Specifically, APD should:

  • Remove the blanket prohibition on releasing footage involving pending criminal charges (Section 1 (D)(4)). This provision would prevent the public from seeing footage where an officer’s misconduct is so great that criminal charges need to be brought. Most footage of officer misconduct comes from private cameras, which can be made public. Releasing body-worn camera footage will not, and has not been shown to, negatively impact an officer’s right to a fair trial.
  • When a public records request is for video footage showing a person being killed, shot by a firearm, or grievously injured, the policy should require APD to prioritize the request and provide footage as expeditiously as possible, but in no circumstances later than five (5) days following receipt of the request.
  • Allow APD to redact personally identifying characteristics of people when necessary to protect personal privacy, the right to a fair trial, the identity of a crime victim or confidential source, or the life or physical safety of any person appearing in video footage – as long as an original version is retained, and the viewer can still understand the video.


 

3. Create clear rules for when officers turn cameras on and off.

Q.Create clear rules for when officers turn cameras on and off.
A.

It’s in the best interest of the public and officers to create a simple, clear framework for when to operate cameras, so officers have fewer steps to think through and cannot be blamed for making the wrong call. Our approach, which is mirrored in policies across the country, is to require officers to activate the audio and video recording functions of their cameras when responding to a call for service, or at the outset of any other law enforcement or investigative encounter with a member of the public. To APD’s credit, the latest version of their draft policy includes new language along these lines - that “officers shall record all calls for service or when initiating an encounter with the public unless it is unsafe, impossible, or impractical to do so.” But the policy should be stronger and cleaner. APD should:

  • Remove the word “impractical,” because it is vague and low discretionary standard.
  • In circumstances when activating a camera is unsafe or impossible, require officers to activate at the first reasonable opportunity.
  • Require officers to stop recording only once the encounter is fully concluded and the officer leaves the scene.
  • Require officers to notify people that they are being recorded, as close to the start of the encounter as possible. And for victims of crime, people making anonymous reports, and when entering a private residence without a warrant or exigent circumstances, they should be required to ask if the subject wants to discontinue filming.
  • Prohibit gathering intelligence based on First Amendment protected activity unrelated to a call for service, or a law enforcement or investigative encounter between an officer and a member of the public. The draft policy merely requires officers to “minimize” their impact on people’s ability to exercise these fundamental constitutional rights.

4. Prohibit officers from reviewing footage of videos showing any use of force before completing initial casework.

Q.Prohibit officers from reviewing footage of videos showing any use of force before completing initial casework.
A.

The initial reports, statements, and interviews that police routinely complete after an incident are the only chance for the public, police department, and legal system to learn about the officer’s first-hand experience of an incident. Reviewing footage prior to filling out reports runs the risk of changing the officer’s perception, undermining the legitimacy of investigations, and allows officers to align their statements and reports with video footage. In the worst cases, it enables outright lying. The APD’s draft policy does prohibit officers from reviewing or copying footage in some critical circumstances. But the policy should be made stronger by:

  • Prohibiting officers from reviewing — or receiving an accounting of body camera footage — for any incident where force was used. The current language would not cover circumstances when force was used, but a person was not hospitalized.
  • Allowing APD officers to view footage after these initial steps are taken, and original versions of statements are preserved, so they can amend reports in track changes.

5. Ban the use of facial recognition technology.

Q.Ban the use of facial recognition technology.
A.

Facial recognition is less accurate in identifying faces of color, of women, or younger and older persons, and of transgender/non-binary people. The stakes for being misidentified by facial recognition are incredibly high. If a person is falsely arrested because of misidentification, they may experience personal trauma and harm, or lose or be denied a job, among other consequences. Facial recognition technology also enables government surveillance. If an APD officer filmed a rally or protest, then facial recognition technology would allow the department to possess a record of who was there without suspicion or justification. APD has not indicated whether or not it uses facial recognition technology. Therefore, the policy should:

  • Prohibit the use of facial recognition software or any other form of biometric analysis, including any real-time technologies.

6. Who makes the final decision on the body-worn camera policy?

Q.Who makes the final decision on the body-worn camera policy?
A.

The public, Public Safety Advisory Committee, and the Anchorage Assembly can, and should, provide feedback to the Anchorage Police Department’s policy, however it’s the city’s Chief of Police, Ken McCoy, who get’s the final say.

7. What’s next for the bodycam policy?

Q.What’s next for the bodycam policy?
A.

After the Anchorage Police Department’s (APD) public listening session June 16, the Assembly and Municipality are expected to create additional opportunities for discussion of the draft policy and to take community feedback.

  • July 7 at 11:00 a.m. – Regular meeting of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. The committee is expected to discuss the draft policy at the meeting, which APD regularly attends. Meeting agendas typically include a time for audience participation. The agenda and meeting information will be posted here.   
  • On Aug. 4, at a time to be determined, the Anchorage Public Safety Advisory Commission – made up of members of the public to advise the Mayor and Assembly on public safety issues —will hold a session dedicated to hearing input on the bodycam policy.
  • Aug. 18 at 6 p.m., the Public Safety Advisory Commission will take public testimony during its regularly scheduled meeting.

APD has not announced additional public input opportunities.

8. Additional resources

Q.Additional resources
A.

Watch: APD’s June 16 public listening session: https://www.facebook.com/195827737244236/videos/155619503278418

Alaska Black Caucus Community Conversation on body-worn cameras: https://www.facebook.com/102949661238480/videos/353729499405735

Alaska’s News Source coverage of APD community listening session: https://www.alaskasnewssource.com/2021/06/17/apd-hosts-community-listening-session-body-camera-policy/