In the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, the conflicting accounts that emerged as well as the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson rose to the level of nationwide protests. In particular, the differing accounts of Michael Brown’s death prompted demands for police accountability and transparency—people wanted police body cameras. President Obama answered and recommended $263 million for law enforcement cameras. There has since been some evaluation of policies being used by legislatures and law enforcement to ensure that footage obtained from police cameras is collected as well as preserved. However, there has been almost no conversation surrounding the classification of such footage, its relationship to the public, or the media’s access following trial.
Duluth, Minnesota is home to the first police department in the state to receive body cameras. In August of 2014, body cameras captured a police officer shooting a 34-year-old man who had locked himself in his garage and threatened to kill himself with a knife. Although officers were cleared of any wrong doing, videos were never released at the close of the investigation. Duluth reporters claim that following crime lab investigations, departments typically comply with information requests by reporters. In this case, prosecutors reviewed the body camera footage but the videos were never released: “Duluth requested the state clarify what body camera footage is public and what should be kept private, through an unusual request to Minnesota’s information policy analysis division. The office denied Duluth’s request, in what will be the final word on the issue unless the legislature picks it up this spring.” The city attorney has sought to make a distinction between paper reports that are typically released and the hours of footage obtained by body cameras.
In an admittedly digital age, it is clear that advances in technology are affecting law enforcement not only in terms of the equipment being used by the force, but also in terms of the expectations for public access to information. The footage obtained by body cameras should be disclosed to the public following police investigation or, when appropriate, trial. The live, uninterrupted documentation of police encounters enabled by body cameras constitutes a “recor[d] or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” and, without more, should be subject to the FOIA disclosure requirements. Congressional intent commanding FOIA is clear in that its “core purpose” is to “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.”
Because uninterrupted video accounts of police activity would clearly give a clear picture of “what the Government is up to,” there is no doubt of the high public interest in disclosing such footage.