As APD continues to draft policy for body-worn cameras, legal hiccups over access to footage have advocates concerned

a window that says Anchorage Police Department Anchorage Alaska
An Anchorage Police Department Headquarters window looking out on to 4th Ave on May 7th, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Police Department is still working to implement its body-worn camera policy, almost a year after voters approved it.

The department has already bought the cameras, but what’s taken months is figuring out how they’ll be used, and how the public can get the footage.

The draft policy is going through a lengthy review process, and it’s facing criticism.

The Alaska Black Caucus was one of the main organizations pushing for Anchorage police to start wearing body cameras. But President Celeste Hodge-Growden says the draft policy is not what she had in mind. 

“This is supposed to be about our community, and protecting not just police officers, but the citizens,” she said. “And right now, the way that they want this policy to flow is it just protects the police.”

One of Hodge-Growden’s main concerns is that there is no clear path for body camera footage to be released to the public in the case of high-interest occurrences, like police shootings and misconduct. 

Hodge-Growden isn’t alone in her concerns. She and other supporters say the point of body cameras is to increase transparency and accountability with Anchorage police. They say the draft policy doesn’t go far enough. On the other side, the city says it needs to follow state privacy laws.

READ MORE: Anchorage police have no timeline on implementing body-worn cameras as current draft policy draws scrutiny

Disagreements over releasing camera footage

In its current form, Anchorage police officers’ body camera footage would not automatically be released to the public in high-interest cases. Instead, members of the public would have to file records requests, which can take months to complete and cost thousands of dollars. Even after that, the footage could be redacted at the discretion of the police department and the city.  

Hodge-Growden said when advocates were able to get the body cameras approved and purchased during last year’s election, they thought it’d be easier to get that footage. 

“We finally got the funding, and now there’s this,” said Hodge-Growden. “It just seems like every time you turn around, there’s something different. The playing field changes.”

City attorneys say a major reason why they can’t automatically release footage has to do with state privacy laws.

“There is extensive federal and state case law analyzing individual privacy rights in relation to the release of government records,” according to an email from Anchorage Department of Law officials.

As a result, they say, the release of the footage would have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. 

Anchorage attorney Andy Erickson, who’s been following the process, said the state’s privacy laws could stand in the way of some footage being released. But he believes the municipality is too strict in their legal view. 

“The right to privacy yields when there’s a matter that transforms the issue from a purely private personal matter to a public matter,” he said. “The Alaska Supreme Court has said so, when a matter affects the public, it loses its character as a wholly private matter.”

One example used by advocates of the body-worn cameras is the fatal 2019 shooting of Bishar Hassan by Anchorage police. The shooting was caught on a police dash cam, however, the footage only became widely seen recently, after attorneys for Hassan’s family gave the footage to NBC News.

In a federal legal filing, attorneys for the city asked a judge to order attorneys to stop publicizing the footage. As part of the filing, attorneys wrote that even if the camera had been obtained through a records request, they still would’ve redacted some graphic parts of the footage to protect Hassan’s family’s privacy.

Erickson argued that since the shooting was in a public place, he doesn’t believe the right to privacy applies. 

“When you’re out walking around in public, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy for a police officer approaching you with a body-worn camera,” Erickson said. “And the same thing would happen with a police shooting or an incident that happened on the public street.”

Erickson said the city would have a better argument against releasing footage involving private homes or more intimate encounters. 

The police department says it’s working to fine tune its policy before bringing it before the police officer’s union. 

‘Not that great, but it’s good’

Nusret Sahin is a professor at Stockton University in New Jersey who has researched body-worn camera policies across the country as they’ve been implemented.

He described the Anchorage draft body camera policy as “not that great, but it’s good.” 

Sahin said one area of concern is that there’s no section of the policy that requires officers to notify residents that the camera is turned on. He also believes that officers should have more clear instructions on when they are required to turn the cameras on, instead of leaving it entirely to their discretion. 

Sahin does agree with the city that there are valid privacy concerns with automatically releasing the footage to the public without redactions and before an investigation is completed. 

But he said there are ways to be more transparent with victims and their families. Sahin is currently working on research with New Jersey body-worn cameras to better improve transparency. 

“Our strategy to deal with that is we’re going to make the footage available to the people who were recorded and who were there that day with the interaction with the police,” Sahin said.

In those cases, even as an investigation is ongoing, individuals in the footage would be able to decide for themselves on their own privacy concerns, and potentially could have the right to release the footage themselves. 

Sahin said part of his research is going toward helping the Department of Justice create federal guidelines on police body-worn camera footage, so that the process for releasing footage is clearer and operates on less of a case-by-case basis.  

“We’re going to have an idea on whether the public expects to access these videos,” Sahin said. “So we’re going to get an idea of the public’s expectations.”

Hodge-Growden with the Alaska Black Caucus said while she is still pushing for automatic release of footage involving police shootings and misconduct, she’s open to the compromise of releasing footage to those involved in police incidents.   

“As long as those individuals that have a vested interest, like maybe the mom of a young man that was killed, and they have the right to do with the video what protects them as a family,” Hodge-Growden said.

Other parts of the policy she would like to see include requiring all officers wear cameras and that the cameras always be on. 

Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said the department will continue taking public comments on the policy until March 16. After that, he says he’ll bring the final draft policy to the police union. 

The police department has not yet announced a date for when police will start wearing the cameras.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.