Is the Anchorage Police Department moving away from the transparency of body cameras?
The people of Anchorage have spoken clearly: they I want more transparency of their police department, and they’re willing to pay for it.
The Anchorage Police Department and the municipality say they are on the same page as the people. But their actions regarding long-delayed body cameras for officers tell a different story.
In recent remarks, Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said that despite the department’s previous promises to bring body-worn cameras online by the end of 2021, there are still no no timeline for when they will roll out – and he won’t commit to one.
Other major items that Chief Kerle and the department will not commit to regarding body-worn cameras include:
• How many officers will wear them.
The clear intent of community members and the public in passing the ballot funding the cameras in 2021 was that all officers would carry the cameras on duty to establish a more independent record of events. But Kerle now says he plans to implement the use of the cameras at maybe “five or six per shift” before finally moving to using them full force at some undefined point in the future.
• How the public will be able to access the images.
So far, in public comments, community members have made it clear that their expectation and preference is for body cam footage to be released to the public proactively, and not as part of the application process. time-consuming and expensive public records that often result in ridiculous fees and outright denials, in violation of Alaska public records laws. But the ODA’s draft policy on body cameras does not provide for the automatic public release of the images. City attorneys say they are unsure whether they can grant public access to the images to privacy protections in Alaska law.
Despite the municipality’s protests, its staff tasked with developing body camera policy appears to be dragging their feet and intentionally obfuscating the process at this point. Alaska’s public records law is clear with respect to municipal records – the first sentence of the Alaska Public Records Act reads: “Except as otherwise provided, the public records of all public bodies are open to public inspection on reasonable terms during normal business hours.” Municipal prosecutors seem to rely heavily on a exception to this law for matters which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of a suspect, accused, victim or witness”. But in service of an exception that might apply in a small fraction of cases, when police enter a person’s home, for example, the municipality and its police department have delayed implementing the whole body camera program for almost a year since its adoption.
It’s not like this is new legal territory that has never been explored before. About half police departments in the United States use body cameras, including several in Alaska. And the ODA has promised it wants body cameras and plans to implement them as soon as policy concerns are resolved since at least 2015. There are no insurmountable obstacles to a transparent body camera policy that meets the public interest. The municipality is apparently worried about being sued for breach of privacy, and to avoid it, the DPA and the city are so far willing to expose themselves to legal action for recourse to privacy. strength – which are much more common and which municipality is already confronted – that the body camera images could clear up.
There is a huge public interest in being able to verify that the trust we place in our public safety officers is well placed. Anchorage residents understand this; they voted to tax themselves an extra $1.8 million a year to make it happen after the municipality made no progress toward body cameras for more than half a decade. Now, not only does the municipality continue to delay, but its proposed policies fall far short of the level of transparency that people expect and deserve. Residents seeking to corroborate the official record shouldn’t face a marathon application process, hundreds of dollars in fees, and waits of months or even years — or sometimes an outright denial with little justification.
Former police chief Ken McCoy agrees. He said he believes the public should have access to the footage, and some of its early draft policies on body cameras reflected that. “I know the City Legal Department disagrees with this and they feel we can’t do this based on privacy law,” McCoy said in a discussion with members of the Alaska Black Caucus last month. “However, I think it’s a conversation that we need to keep pushing and have.”
McCoy is right. Unless we push for it, the municipality will be perfectly happy to continue to delay the use of body cameras and keep the recorded footage well out of the public eye. Public Comment on body cameras and the policy on their use and images are still open until March 16. Let the municipality know that you and other voters expect transparency and that we didn’t vote for a $1.8 million tax increase so the footage can stay on hard drives under lock and key, away from the ability of the public to access it. Body cameras can be a useful tool to help police do their job well and maintain trust between officers and the public, but only if the public trusts that they can see what the cameras are capturing.