Body camera footage has been a valuable asset in holding police officers accountable, for both unjustified shootings and planting evidence. (Some would also argue that when cops aren’t punished for misconduct caught on camera the footage only serves to demonstrate to the public what the police can get away with.)

Whatever role body cam footage plays, it can’t accomplish much if people don’t see it. And people don’t see it if police departments don’t release it. So, what are the rules around the public release of police body camera footage, and when do departments need to release it?

Can We Get the Body Cam?

Because the use of body cameras in police officers is fairly new, departments in different cities, counties, and states have different policies when it comes to releasing video footage, and many of those policies are subject to change. Departments are also still refining their best practices for officer use: when to turn them on, when to turn them off, etc. As the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowry told NPR:

[T]here still remains not a ton of best practices or set of standards for how those cameras are deployed. You will see a lot of instances in which officers aren’t turning them on or not turning them on until after. But then, on top of that, there are no best practices governing the release of this video. So, you have a public record that’s being created by taxpayer dollars, these videos, but when are they released and when are they not released?
You know, our review found while many were shootings were being caught on camera this year than last year, not more of them are being released. In fact, it’s more likely than not when a fatal shooting is captured on camera, it will not be released to the public. Rather, it will be something that the police department holds on to.

While it may seem automatic that any footage of police shootings would be released, especially if (as the story generally goes) the shooting was legally justified. But other considerations can come into play: judges and prosecutors may be concerned with how the footage will impact future trials and jury pools; there could be privacy concerns for bystanders in the video; and there could be legislative barriers in states that have exempted body cam footage from Freedom of Information Act requests.

Filming on Location

If you want more specific information for your location, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has created an interactive map of both state legislation and police department policies regarding public access to body camera footage. The states are color-coded depending on their specific laws:

  1. Blue: Legislation regarding public accessibility to body-worn camera footage has been proposed, but not passed;
  2. Yellow: A law has been passed regarding public access to body-worn camera footage;
  3. Brown: No laws regarding public access to body-worn camera footage have been passed (although some states have introduced or passed bills regarding the implementation of body cams that don’t address public access to footage); and
  4. Green: A court case has decided the rules regarding public access to body-worn camera footage.

The map also includes city and department-specific policies for dozens of municipalities. So you can see what the restrictions and responsibilities are in your area. And if you’re requesting police body cam footage, you may want to contact a local attorney for help.

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