(Oct. 27, 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. A strong policy will provide the department with a blueprint for using body cameras in a transparent way, and it will provide the public a way to hold police accountable.

The rules around how officers use body-worn cameras, and what happens to the footage, are vital to delivering accountability while 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 has been working on the policy for most of 2021, and publicly released two separate drafts while soliciting feedback from the public. Unfortunately, both the policy and public engagement have not shown a commitment to the 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. It is imperative that APD improve its policy and public engagement before equipping officers with cameras, which will likely be in 2022. We offer several important ways APD can change its draft policy to achieve these goals.

See the policy here: https://public.powerdms.com/ANCHOR/tree/documents/2370606

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Require officers to activate cameras at the first reasonable opportunity in circumstances when activating a camera is unsafe or impossible, and 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. Doing so increases the safety of officers and community members alike, and allows victims of crime to exercise their rights under the policy to request officers discontinue video recording. The policy should also require officers to ask if the subject wants to discontinue filming when entering a private residence without a warrant or exigent circumstances.
  • Remove language permitting officers to turn cameras off to conduct private conversations with other officers, which will lead to unintentional or intentional failures to capture critical footage.

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. Retention of video

Q.Retention of video
A.

It is in the interests of both the public and the APD to establish clear rules for how it will retain video. Storing video properly and for an adequate amount of time is important for fulfilling the transparency and accountability goals of the body-worn camera program. When video captures a use of force or misconduct, we need to be sure the video has not been deleted or purged. It is also important to keep video for an adequate amount of time in other contexts — such as when it holds value in a legal proceeding. But it’s also important to set limits on how long video may be retained before it is deleted, because of the high cost of storing video and because of privacy. APD’s policy can strike this balance by: 

  • Cross-referencing in the policy any current retention schedule that would govern body camera footage.
  • Ensuring body camera footage is not kept longer than needed for legitimate law enforcement or legal purposes. We recommend a standard six-month time frame for retaining body camera recordings before deleting them, and a requirement that footage be kept for at least three years when it captures an interaction or event involving any use of force, or an encounter about which a complaint has been registered by a subject of the video footage.
  • Allow certain people to voluntarily request a video be kept for at least three years (e.g., an officer whose camera recorded the video footage, if they reasonably assert the video has evidentiary or exculpatory value; a member of the public captured in the video; the parent of a minor captured in video footage).”

7. 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 policy is ultimately subject to final approval by the Chief of Police, Ken McCoy. However, other entities – such as the Municipal Attorney’s office, the Bronson Administration, and the officers’ union have an influential role for the policy development.  

8. What’s next for the bodycam policy?

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

Nov. 6 – End of public comment period on the policy. Submit comments directly to APD and Mayor Bronson today!”

9. Additional resources

Q.Additional resources
A.

KTUU coverage of updated policy draft (Oct. 7, 2021) -  https://www.alaskasnewssource.com/2021/10/07/anchorage-police-release-ne...

Alaska Public Media coverage of updated policy draft (Oct. 7, 2021) - https://www.alaskapublic.org/2021/10/07/new-draft-policy-for-anchorage-police-body-cameras-criticized-for-lack-of-transparency/

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/

Watch: Discussion of body camera policy during July 7 Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting:
https://youtu.be/j21BTBhy7r8?t=178