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Bodycam footage was supposed to reform policing — if the public can get a hold of it

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

About a decade ago, police departments began outfitting their officers with body cameras to capture their encounters with alleged perpetrators. President Obama even made body cams a centerpiece of his response to excessive violence against Black men. Recently, the news organization ProPublica tried to get ahold of body cam footage from police killings, but in many cases, police departments refused to release it. ProPublica's Umar Farooq joins us now to talk about this. Good morning, Umar.

UMAR FAROOQ: Hi. Good morning.

SCHMITZ: Umar, you focus on videos of every police involved death in the U.S. during a single month in 2022. In some cases, the footage was already out there. What did police departments say when you asked for the others?

FAROOQ: In some of them, they did hand it over to us. In a lot of them, they said either, because the case is still being investigated, we can't turn anything over to you, or they said, because of state laws or other laws that were applicable in their area, they weren't allowed to turn over that kind of video.

SCHMITZ: And in what percentage of the cases did you not get the video?

FAROOQ: About a third of the cases, we did not get the video even a year and a half after the killing had happened.

SCHMITZ: And what does that tell you?

FAROOQ: It tells us that this whole idea of the public being told that body camera footage is going to make everything more transparent - it hasn't turned out to be true. And a year and a half after police killed someone, they're often still not willing to show you what their body cameras had captured.

SCHMITZ: So sometimes police said the shooting was still under investigation. And I'm wondering. In your mind, what's the matter with that rationale?

FAROOQ: It's a very long time for something to still be under investigation. And the danger is that an investigation will be completed and officers will be exonerated and - without the public ever kind of being able to see what the evidence was for the basis for that decision to be made.

SCHMITZ: I want you to bring us back to President Obama's call for officers to wear body cameras back about a decade ago. What was his reasoning?

FAROOQ: His reasoning at the time - you know, it was the case of Michael Brown, a young 18-year-old Black man who was killed in Ferguson, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: His death, along with the events in Cleveland, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cincinnati and other communities, sparked protests and soul-searching all across our country.

FAROOQ: And it came down to basically the word of the police officers against a bunch of witnesses who had seen what happened. And the reasoning was if the police officer had been wearing a body camera, there would be video from the point of view of this officer that captured everything that could just lay to rest any kind of debate that was going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: The Justice Department has begun pilot programs to help police use body cameras and collect data on the use of force.

FAROOQ: And so over the next decade, the Department of Justice, we found, spent more than $184 million in grants given out to, I think, around a thousand police departments around the country. And in addition to that, a lot of cities across the country put money in from their own public budget - 50, $60 million for some of the big cities - to buy these cameras and all the software that goes with it.

SCHMITZ: I'm wondering. Did that money come with any strings attached, like, you know, a requirement that they need to make that footage publicly available or something like that?

FAROOQ: No, it didn't come with any strings attached. And the Department of Justice, you know, has had a hard time putting, you know, conditions on different funding like that, not just for body cameras but also, you know, funding that goes towards police buying, you know, weapons or protective gear or other equipment.

SCHMITZ: Omar, you had - in your second article about this, you wrote about the case of Joseph Pettaway. Can you talk a little bit about that?

FAROOQ: Yeah. So Joseph Pettaway was killed by a police dog in Montgomery, Ala., in 2018. He was sleeping inside a house that he was rehabbing. He had every right to be there. The police showed up in the middle of the night, sent in a dog without any real reason. The dog killed him. The whole thing was captured on body camera video. And for more than five years now, the family of Joseph Pettway has been trying to have that video made public. They've been allowed in private to view it. They think it shows horrendous, criminal wrongdoing on the part of the police.

SCHMITZ: And in the Pettaway case, what was the rationale from the police department on why they will not release that footage?

FAROOQ: One rationale was just that there's a blanket state law in Alabama which says that body camera footage is not a public record. And then the other rationale they gave is that what it captures is so graphic and so upsetting that it would cause civil unrest if it was shown to the public. So they're saying, like, there would be riots if it was shown to the public.

SCHMITZ: So what's the answer then? I mean, if you are looking for - there are many groups, obviously, looking for more transparency when it comes to these body cams. How do they get it?

FAROOQ: A lot of it's, you know, fighting at the local level or at the state level that needs to be done. And that is happening in a lot of places. For example, California has a state law that says within, I think, 45 days of an incident, every law enforcement agency in the state needs to release video unless it has some compelling reason not to. It's an uphill fight because, as we document in a number of states, laws have actually kind of gone backwards and made it more difficult for the public to access body camera video.

SCHMITZ: That's Umar Farooq. He's a reporter with ProPublica. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

FAROOQ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.