Public vs. Private: Police incidents spark discussions on body-camera policy

The last frame of the redacted video where Flagstaff’s rookie police officer Tyler Stewart was shot and killed in 2014. (Flagstaff Police Department)

Tyler Stewart, a 24-year-old Flagstaff police officer, was dispatched to a domestic abuse incident in 2014, outfitted with the department’s newly purchased body cameras. Within minutes of speaking with a man about the incident, the situation turned tragic.

In an instant on the chilly afternoon of Dec. 27, the man pulled out a gun from his jacket and fatally shot Stewart before turning the gun on himself. Stewart’s body camera recorded his final moments.

The video, before being published, was redacted by the department. After multiple attempts from news organizations to get the public record released, journalists reported that personnel within the Flagstaff department debated releasing the footage publicly.

The use of the equipment has increased in efforts to be more transparent, but has started a years-long debate regarding public records data. Agencies such as the Flagstaff, Mesa and Phoenix police departments have faced scrutiny for how long records have taken to be released.

“They should really be able to go into their database quickly and pull the video and I don’t see any significant reason that they would have to review the video in advance of releasing it, it should be a pretty quick process,” said Steve Kilar, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

The ACLU has been vocal in making sure departments are following the law. In 2017, the organization filed a lawsuit against the Phoenix Police Department for not releasing footage from a Donald Trump rally where tear gas was used by officers.

Arizona law requires all officers and public bodies to maintain records to provide accurate accounts of their official activities. The public records are to be preserved, especially during public interactions.

Now, stakeholders such as the American Civil Liberties Union and state lawmakers continue to discuss of the releasing of officer body camera footage.

In 2015, Arizona attempted to pass legislation restricting access to data from body-worn cameras. The “Law Enforcement Office Body Camera Study Committee,” made up of public safety and civil liberties officials, analyzed the recommendations proposed by state senators, mainly state Sen. John Kavanagh.

The committee subsequently rejected the lawmaker’s recommendations that would have kept a large amount of the camera data secret unless used in legal proceedings, according to The Arizona Republic.

A study done by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted there was an additional attempt to pass legislation in 2017, which also did not pass.

Arizona has not passed a law specific to the use of body cameras. (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press)

 

“Arizona’s public records laws are among the best in the country in terms of access to public information, but we do have a problem with government agencies abusing exemptions to the laws,” Kilar said. The video is part of an ongoing investigation.

Kilar said another problem is understaffing in the agencies responding to the records requests. “If somebody wants information about a particular investigation, especially an investigation they may be involved in, they shouldn’t have to wait weeks or months to get that information,” he said.

Departments have continued to install the technology since 2013. Flagstaff police, with an officer count of 85 in 2015, received grant money approved by the Flagstaff City Council for $117,000. The initial purchase of 50 body cameras from Axon, the manufacturer of the camera devices, led to the camera program’s launch in Oct. 2014.

Officers in Flagstaff must follow policies created by the department for proper recording and preserving of data. Body camera policy states the cameras must be turned on at a practicable time while en route to calls for service, as Stewart did while on his way to the scene.

A stop in recording is allowed in places where there is an expectation of privacy, including a hospital or restroom. Each event is logged in one of 22 possible categories, including traffic stops and felony investigations, where retention periods last from one year to seven years.

While the footage is logged individually by the officers, the program is overseen by a unit supervisor. The department has a contract with Axon to also use their storage site for the officers to upload their data. Department supervisors have the authority to conduct equipment inspections at any time.

Police departments are in charge of creating a policy and reprimanding officers when the proper use equipment is abused. While there is no specific consequence in the specific body-worn camera policy, officers could face disciplinary review for their actions.

“The officers are responsible to verify their cameras work and if they do not they have to report the nonfunctional camera to our property technician immediately so it can be replaced or repaired as soon as possible,” said Sgt. Cory Runge, a Flagstaff police spokesman.

Along with the department issued policy, state and federal laws must continue to be followed. David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, said current public record laws are adequate for the growing technology.

“In Arizona, if you want to request to look at some body camera footage all you have to do is just ask for it, and they have to let you see it,” Cuillier said. “Now, they can redact or cut out parts if there are reasons under law that would allow them to – for example, privacy is one of those exemptions.”

In adding their voice to the public records debate, the ACLU has published its own guidelines for the regulation of body camera. A policy difference between the ACLU and Flagstaff Police Department is the body camera video footage would not be withheld from the public because it is an “investigatory” record.

“What we are hoping is that by providing model policies this gives police departments a structure for thinking about how they should go about creating policies for the use of these tools,” Kilar said.

Shaq Davis is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at smd3@email.arizona.edu

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