In this space Sunday, we commented on the value of body-worn cameras for law enforcement officers and stated that policies and laws supporting public release of their images can go a long way toward accountability and, in most cases, community support and confidence.
By and large, the video captured by body-worn cameras will show officers, deputies and troopers doing their jobs professionally, competently and compassionately even when dealing with emotional, dangerous and crisis situations. That’s important for the public to know and see, and the agencies holding videos of those encounters are more likely than not to voluntarily make them public.
However, in law enforcement, like every field of endeavor – though few involve as many life-or-death actions and decisions – there are judgment errors and unprofessional conduct. Body-worn cameras can capture those actions, too, but in general it’s tougher for the public to access those images.
For going on three decades, the public has also seen officers in action through videos shot not by law enforcement cameras (patrol car dashboards or body-worn devices) but by citizens. Video showing the beating of Rodney King, which sparked riots and 63 fatalities in Los Angeles, was taken by a witness in 1991.
Twenty-eight years later, just last week, the public saw citizen-shot video of Phoenix police officers pulling their weapons and threatening to shoot the parents of a 4-year-old who, without their knowledge, took a doll from a discount store. In video released Friday of the late May encounter, one officer tries to pull a small child from the mother’s arms and another kicks the handcuffed father as he stands face-forward against a patrol car. The incident has resulted in a $10 million lawsuit, national outrage and a mayoral apology.
Our editorial Sunday called on the Iowa Legislature to get off the sidelines and remove legal ambiguity to enhance transparency regarding law enforcement videos. We concluded by stating that whatever the policies and laws, they must be followed. That isn’t always happening.
The Washington Post and other outlets point out that the Phoenix lawsuit claims that the officers were not wearing body cameras despite department rules that require them. Closer to home and under milder circumstances, we note how a curious if not controversial situation is made worse through questionable handling of body-worn camera video.
It already started out as a curious situation: An investigation — that might be too generous a description — of a reported roadside assault involving Amanda Lassance, Jackson County assistant county attorney, and her boyfriend, both of whom had been drinking. The 911 call came from Clinton County, and a Clinton County deputy responded, as did a Jackson County deputy.
The prosecutor was behind the wheel of the parked vehicle, its keys removed, stated the Clinton County deputy, whose report noted that she had “bloodshot” and “watery” eyes and slurred speech. Lassance didn’t get a field sobriety test, but she did get a ride back to Maquoketa. Professional courtesy?
The Maquoketa Sentinel-Press filed an open records request for videos of the incident. In Jackson County, Sheriff Russ Kettmann accommodated to the extent that the journalists could view 5½ minutes of it in his office, under department supervision. He said they could come view it as often as they desired. That was positive.
However, when the paper asked more questions and noted discrepancies between the accounts of the incident from the respective counties, the Sentinel-Press filed another open records request in Jackson County — this time for the entire video. According to the paper, the sheriff replied, “I have no problem giving it to you because that’s what we’ve got.”
Soon afterward, however, Kettmann called the newsroom to report that the requested video had been deleted by another deputy. Uh-oh.
While the sheriff said that old footage or that which “something the county attorney doesn’t need” is deleted every three months, this video — the subject of an open-records request — was purged after just 25 days. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, of which the Telegraph Herald’s parent company is a longtime supporter, called on Attorney General Tom Miller to investigate.
Subsequently, and fortunately, an IT staffer in Jackson County was able to recover the “deleted” file. That action does suggest a good-faith effort to do what’s right.
Nonetheless, considering these twists and turns involving deputies and an assistant county attorney, it is still appropriate for Miller to look into this episode. Public accountability and confidence are at stake.