Anchorage police release new draft policy on body cameras after pause for legal concerns

The Anchorage Police Department.
The Anchorage Police Department.
Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 6:12 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After a two-month pause to address legal concerns with the Anchorage Police Department’s draft policy on body-worn cameras, the department has released another draft policy as to how it will handle those cameras.

The purchase and use of body-worn cameras was approved by Anchorage voters in April, with a $1.84 million property tax increase to facilitate their use.

The new draft, released online Wednesday after it was announced by Municipal Manager Amy Demboski in an Anchorage Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting, addresses some concerns about privacy issues raised with previous versions, but falls short in public access, critics say.

In August, Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy said at a public meeting on the policy that the newest draft was not yet available, while legal issues had to be worked out in the language. The city’s law department pointed out that Alaska has some of the strictest privacy laws in the country, and those could not be ignored in the formulation of body camera policies. At the time, a call from public testifiers for release of video of all critical incidents, including in-custody deaths, was a hang-up for the city’s attorneys.

“I think some of the feedback we’ve gotten is they would like release of video for in-custody deaths,” said Blair Christensen, a city attorney, at the time. “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.”

Release of the camera footage to the public is not explicitly addressed in the new draft of the policy, other than a statement that it “may be released” according to the Municipality’s Access to Public Records code.

“All along, we’ve asked the policy to include provisions like that, because it’s central to accountability and transparency,” said Michael Garvey, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska’s advocacy director. “If APD is allowed to withhold critical footage and release only footage that shows officers in a favorable light, then body cameras go from being a tool for transparency and accountability to a tool for police propaganda.”

Garvey noted McCoy’s previously stated intent to include a mechanism for public release of footage in the policy. McCoy was not available for an interview Wednesday, a spokesperson for the police department said.

At the time the roll-out of the plan was postponed, McCoy had said release of video to the public and two other primary topics were of concern:

  • When officers should activate and deactivate the cameras, and
  • Whether officers will be allowed to review the footage themselves.

Those two areas have been clarified in the updated draft policy. Officers reviewing or copying video footage is allowed in many cases — explicitly when writing police reports, when preparing to testify about an event in court, or in conducting an internal investigation. Videos may be copied for traffic or administrative hearings, by subpoena or court order, and in some cases, for training purposes.

There are five situations in which officers are not allowed to copy or review footage, according to the draft policy:

  • When there is an in-custody death;
  • When there is a use of deadly force; and
  • Where a use of force or police action resulting in an injury to the public requiring admittance to a hospital beyond medical clearance.
  • When an employee is the subject of a criminal investigation.
  • After being notified of an administrative investigation.

As for when cameras will be used, the draft policy details that uniformed officers on patrol and in crime suppression units will wear the cameras at all times. Officers are directed to turn on their cameras during all calls for service and police-initiated encounters with the public. Officers are directed to turn cameras off when discussing private matters with supervisors or other officers, and when discussing the facts of a case with other officers, the prosecutors’ office, government employees, etc. They are also directed to not record encounters with undercover officers or confidential informants.

Interruptions to recordings, or a choice to not record an interaction that fits the criteria, must be documented, the policy states. It also states that officers may choose not to record interactions when investigating a sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or other child abuse.

Incidents that should not be recorded, according to the policy, include peaceful protests, interactions with people who are naked, and the officer’s breaks and other personal activities. It advises officers to minimize recording “uninvolved” people in places where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy” like in a locker room, restroom, church area of worship, school, mental health facility or patient care area of a health care facility. It also advises officers not to record areas of private homes that are not part of an investigation.

The ACLU praised that part of the plan.

“If an officer comes to your home to ask questions, and has a camera on, maybe they can see inside the entire house. That’s obviously very concerning from a privacy standpoint,” Garvey said. “I think they’ve taken steps to acknowledge the privacy concerns. It would be interesting to learn about the municipality’s full analysis on privacy grounds.”

The Anchorage Police Department and a spokesperson for the mayor’s office referred Alaska’s News Source to Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt late Wednesday afternoon for details on the legal perspective that led to the changes in the draft policy.

With the lack of a mechanism for specifically releasing body camera video to the public, Garvey said he recognizes there are privacy concerns in many critical incidents like in-custody deaths.

“We don’t just say, ‘just release all videos,’” he said. “There are steps that APD can take to ensure privacy such as redaction of details about people’s faces and clothing. When we come to the point of releasing a video to the public, those things are obviously concerning.”

The public comment period for the new policy will be 30 days from Oct. 6 to Nov. 6. Feedback will be collected online. To see the full draft plan and give input, click here.

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