EDITORIAL: Full, swift disclosure is only option

Policies regarding the release of police body camera tapes should be fully transparent to ensure the public's trust

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

You ever try to see in a window that’s painted over? Or one that’s covered with dirt and grime? Or one that has a plastic film over it that’s designed to let in some light, but not let people really see inside?

That kind of window does not meet the definition of transparent. And neither do attempts by police agencies to withhold or delay the release of officer body camera and dash camera footage from the public.

If you can’t see through it clearly and without having to wipe away the grime yourself, then it’s not really transparent.

So while we’re grateful that state lawmakers and police and government officials in New York City and elsewhere are significantly amending their old secretive policies to become more transparent, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve achieved it.

And without full transparency, the public can’t fully trust what they’re doing.

The latest attempt at and claim of transparency comes from a new policy enacted by New York City’s mayor requiring the New York Police Department (NYPD) to release within 30 days, and eventually publish online, all audio and video camera footage involving shootouts in public spaces, firing of tasers and use of force that results in death or substantial bodily injury.

The policy is an improvement over the 6-month-old policy that allowed the police commissioner to decide whether releasing the videos served a legitimate public purpose.

But under the amended policy, the NYPD will still retain the ability to edit the footage.

Close as it might be coming to it, that’s still not transparency.

Denying the public access to these tapes for a month after the fact will make people wonder why they’re not releasing them sooner, breeding mistrust. Along with the power to edit tapes, the delay will give police more time to shape the narrative or just hope the public moves on to another subject, lessening the possibility appropriate discipline.

The limitations on what types of activity will trigger the release of tapes also undermine transparency. According to gothamist.com, the New York Civil Liberties Union notes that most, if not all, of the incidents of police brutality captured on camera that prompted multiple investigations of the NYPD would not fall under the new guidelines for the department to release the footage. 

It shouldn’t take a public outcry or evidence from other non-police cameras to compel the swift release of full police camera footage.

The 30-day release period should be reduced to 7 days, giving police just enough time to show the tapes to family members of victims and go through legal scrutiny for privacy-related issues.

Swift release of unedited police camera footage, except in extreme cases where individual privacy or law enforcement is compromised, should be standard practice everywhere.

Anything less than full transparency in police matters is not transparency at all. 

And we shouldn’t let them try to tell us otherwise what we can see with our own eyes.

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