Public access issue presents legal roadblock in development of APD’s body camera policy

Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy and command staff speak to Anchorage Assembly members during...
Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy and command staff speak to Anchorage Assembly members during public safety committee meeting on Aug. 11, 2021.(Daniella Rivera // Alaska's News Source)
Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 8:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Police Department did not release a revised version of its draft body camera policy Wednesday as expected, citing legal issues for the delay.

The department is in the process of adopting a body camera policy after voters approved an annual $1.84 million property tax increase in April to fund the purchase of body cameras as well a significant technology upgrade for the department. A draft policy has been posted online for the public to view since June.

After holding multiple public listening sessions since June, Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy said he received community feedback regarding three main issues the policy needs to address:

  • When video can be released to the public
  • When officers should activate and deactivate the cameras
  • Whether officers will be allowed to review the footage themselves

“My hope for today was to provide you with a second draft that showed some real movement towards that,” McCoy told Anchorage assembly members during a public safety committee meeting. “However, we’ve run into some concerns that were brought to our attention by the legal department.”

The issue of public access to the videos has the potential to become a sticking point. Community members have made it clear through public testimony that they expect the body cameras to be a transparency tool and to have access to the video captured, particularly in use of force incidents and in-custody deaths.

The language in the current draft, which McCoy has stressed is subject to change, could prevent the release of body camera footage for years after an event of interest.

“BWC footage that involves pending criminal charges will not be released until the pending charges have been resolved,” the draft policy reads.

READ MORE: APD’s draft body camera policy might not allow for timely release of footage to the public

When asked about how other states are able to routinely release video of police interactions in a timely manner, attorney Blair Christensen, who is part of the city’s legal team, said the challenge is creating a transparent policy that does not violate Alaska’s specific privacy laws.

“In my research, Alaska has one of the strongest privacy constitutional provisions in the whole country, if not the strongest,” she said.

Christensen said the legal department will continue to research the issue and is currently looking into whether redaction would be a sufficient remedy.

“I think some of the feedback we’ve gotten is they would like release of video for in custody deaths,” she said. “Not all in custody deaths are use of force, right? People have medical events, you could die of an epileptic seizure, a heart attack, things like that, and so some sort of blanket rule that we’d be able to release all of those videos, I just think it’s not going to be probably possible in Alaska.”

After little progress in the effort to outfit APD officers with body cameras during the last several years, the endeavor received new momentum in the summer of 2020, following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers. Video of the events leading up to Floyd’s death, captured by body cameras and a teenage bystander, proved to be crucial evidence for a jury who convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murder.

Hours after Chauvin killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck and back for more than nine minutes, the Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement saying Floyd had died after suffering a “medical incident” during the police interaction.

In Anchorage, local groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and the Alaska Black Caucus have urged the police department to develop a policy that will afford the public timely access to video recordings of events of interest, in order to increase trust, transparency and accountability.

READ MORE: APD hosts community listening session on body camera policy

McCoy, just months into his role as chief of police, has promised to listen to community members and act in a way that builds trust.

“This is not us trying to not move forward with this,” McCoy reiterated Wednesday. “My instructions to our team is, I want us to look at this from the perspective of how can we release video to the public, versus how can we not, and that’s how we’re looking at this because that’s the feedback we’ve received. The public has expectation that there’s going to be some level of access to seeing the video footage, and we’ve been working through that lens: how can we provide the public with access?”

In a community alert Wednesday, the department announced the delay and set a new goal for releasing a revised draft policy.

“The goal is to have it available for the next listening session with the Anchorage Public Safety Commission next Wednesday,” the alert stated.

Written feedback can also be submitted to the Anchorage police through the department’s website.

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