Anchorage voters approved funds to purchase body cameras for APD. What happens next?

Published: Apr. 21, 2021 at 4:55 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Voters in Anchorage’s regular municipal election approved a property tax levy to purchase body-worn cameras for Anchorage Police Department officers, and now justice advocates are weighing in on how city leaders should craft policy that will determine how the cameras are used and when the video is accessible to the public.

Certified results from this month’s municipal election show Proposition 4 passed with nearly 54% of voters in favor of the property tax increase, which is expected to raise $1.84 million annually. The money will be used to equip APD officers with body cameras as well as fund a significant technology upgrade for the department.

Policy governing the use of the cameras and the public’s access to the video they capture is not yet in place, and various community organizations and groups are interested in making sure members of the public have a voice in the process.

APD did not agree to an interview Wednesday, but released a statement attributed to Chief Justin Doll. In the statement, Doll thanked voters for approving the funding and said APD is committed to involving the community in the creation of policy for body cameras.

“Our plan is to involve the public as much as possible in the (body-worn cameras) policy process,” the statement said in part. “It is very important to APD that we have community involvement in this process. We will have more information to share about how the public can participate in the next few months.”

The department presented a draft policy for body cameras during a public meeting in February, noting the benefits and purposes of body cameras, including bolstering public trust.

According to the draft policy, “Release of (Digital) Multimedia Evidence through public records request will be done in accordance with State and Municipal laws and Department Policy.”

Megan Edge, a spokesperson with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, expressed skepticism Wednesday, pointing to instances in which APD has denied records requests citing an open investigation, and, in one recent case, is attempting to charge Alaska’s News Source several thousand dollars to fulfill a records request related to a single arrest.

“When I think about, you know a $6,400 price tag to find the incident number of a case that happened that was reported on social media, like that is unreasonable, and to call that unreasonable really doesn’t even express how unreasonable it is,” Edge said. “And so yeah, we are skeptical ... if police will go to such extreme lengths to keep that information out of public view, what will they do in the event that an officer kills a community member?”

The policy should be clear, Edge said, about what factors and circumstances would justify withholding footage from the public.

“A really important piece of developing this policy is making sure that APD does not withhold footage because it’s associated with an investigation into officer conduct,” she said.

Anchorage Assembly Acting Chair Felix Rivera said he believes it would be beneficial for the assembly to review the municipality’s current public records process.

“As it stands right now, there are deficiencies in the way the municipality handles public records,” Rivera said. “It just takes too long, it’s too convoluted, it’s too bureaucratic. So lets figure out an easier way for the public to be able to access our public records.”

RELATED: ‘It’s really kind of astounding’: APD’s price tag on public records

Rivera said he believes in instances of police use-of-force, body camera footage should be made public in a timely manner.

“Justice delayed, right, isn’t justice at all, so the sooner that we can get this footage out to the public when something does happen, then the better, because it alleviates the tension,” Rivera said. “People can see what exactly happened and it eliminates rumors, because that’s all that happens, right, when you don’t release this footage out in a timely manner, it just creates rumors.”

He also noted that the policy needs to protect people’s privacy when officers enter their home, for instance, or when a victim is reporting a crime.

When it comes to the timeline for putting policy in place and rolling out body cameras, Rivera said there is not a deadline. The assembly would like to see the policy in place before the body cameras arrive, but that might not happen until this fall or winter.

It’s also unclear who will have the final say when it comes to policy governing the use of the new equipment and the release of the evidence it generates, and how Doll’s planned retirement in June and the appointment of a new chief will impact the policy-making process.

“I think it’s an interesting gray area, because, I mean typically a lot of policies that are done by APD, you know it’s really the police chief that comes up with the policy, signs off on the policy,” Rivera said. “There may be certain areas where the assembly gets to weigh in, and I think this is one of those, especially because of the interest in the community, that the assembly really needs to weigh in on this.”

Currently, the Public Safety Advisory Commission, a volunteer group, is looking into questions the assembly and public should consider when it comes to creating policy for body cameras.

“Once the Public Safety Advisory Commission really fleshes out some of the policy points to consider, then I think that’s when we are going to take this out to the community and say, ‘Hey, here are some of the questions that we have, what do you think? Do you have any other concerns that you want to add to the list?’ and really do that process intentionally and invite our community to come give us their feedback before we consider an ordinance,” Rivera said.

In addition to making sure the public has timely access to body camera footage, Edge said it’s important that the policy balances accountability for officers as well as the public’s privacy interests, when dictating instances in which police should turn their cameras on or off.

“It really is a fine line and it’s going to be a delicate balance,” Edge said, “But that’s why it’s really important that the public have the information of how APD plans to use those cameras, but more than that, before that happens, the public really needs to be a part of the conversation.”

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