Crime & Courts

As Anchorage works toward equipping police with body cameras, questions about implementation and footage access remain

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The Anchorage Police Department is still a long way from outfitting officers with body cameras — a move supported by voters through their passage of a $1.8 million annual levy last year.

Chief Michael Kerle said there isn’t a timeline for when that might happen.

He said he plans to roll out the technology on a limited basis: Not all officers will initially be equipped with body cameras, and it’s unclear when the entire force would be using them.

The implementation has been delayed by privacy concerns from the municipal legal department about privacy, public release and access to the footage. Meanwhile, community activists are advocating for footage of police shootings to be released to the public quickly.

The body camera draft policy as currently written declares footage will not be released automatically and will need to be sought through a public records request. A recent request from the Anchorage Daily News seeking dashboard camera footage of a 2019 police shooting highlighted problems with that process, which resulted in a lengthy wait and a high cost estimate, ultimately followed by APD’s rejection of the request.

Transparency and accountability

Anchorage voters approved a tax levy last April that would fund body-worn cameras for the police department as well as upgrade technology. The $1.8 million annual levy came on the heels of renewed public interest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which sparked protests worldwide, including in Anchorage.

Body cameras have been implemented at police departments across the country for more than a dozen years now. By 2016, about 80% of police departments with more than 500 officers had implemented body cameras. The Anchorage Police Department has roughly 430 officers.

Since body camera funding was approved by voters, the department has been crafting policy to govern how the cameras are used and how accessible the footage is to the public.

Kenneth McCoy, who served as police chief until his retirement Feb. 1, brought several drafts of the policy forward and held multiple sessions for public input. The draft stalled for several months because of concerns from the city’s law department about how the policy would interact with standing privacy statutes.

In a recent Q&A with the Alaska Black Caucus, McCoy said he believes the public deserves to have access to body camera footage.

“I know the municipal legal department doesn’t agree with that and they feel we can’t do that based on privacy law, however I think that’s a conversation we need to keep pushing and that we need to have,” he said.

Privacy

The body camera policy does not allow for automatic release of footage for police shootings, and officials noted during a meeting in February it was unlikely that would change in future drafts.

Alaska has among the strictest privacy laws in the country, said municipal attorney Blair Christensen.

“There’s a lot of concerns that go into releasing a recording,” she said. “A lot of times there’s people in the recordings, the person who has been shot has privacy interests, if an officer is shot they have privacy interests. There could be other people in the videos that have privacy interests — juveniles, victims, things like that. And so committing to some sort of automatic release would be challenging and we think it’s probably not consistent with the law in Alaska.”

The footage will need to be obtained through a public records request, which takes months and can be expensive.

Mike Garvey of the ACLU said that he does not believe that privacy statutes prevent footage from being released. He suggested there be a commitment to prioritize record requests if that’s the way footage will be released.

Anchorage Assembly member Felix Rivera said the current policy does not do what Assembly members and citizens intended. He said the intent was to provide a tool to protect both the public and police officers.

“I’m very concerned that the municipality plans to never release footage of police shootings to the public, period,” he said. “And that isn’t at all what the voters wanted when they supported this proposition and voted to increase their property taxes.”

Requesting public records

Just because footage is sought through a public records request doesn’t mean it will be released.

An Anchorage Daily News request for dashboard camera footage of a police shooting from nearly three years ago illustrates some of the challenges of accessing videos under the current public records request process.

On April 1, 2019, Anchorage police officers shot and killed 31-year-old Bishar Hassan after he pulled a BB gun from his waistband.

The three officers’ actions were deemed justified in a review from the Office of Special Prosecutions and they were not criminally charged in the shooting. Hassan’s family filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit last year and is suing the city and the involved officers for $20 million.

The shooting was captured on a police dash cam.

The Daily News submitted a public records request for the footage in April 2021. The Anchorage Police Department took roughly seven months to respond and eventually said it could provide a redacted version of the video at a cost of $515, estimating that an employee would need 12 1/2 hours to redact the video at a cost of $40 per hour. (Rex Butler, the attorney for Hassan’s family, said the entire video is less than 15 minutes long.) Anchorage police redact graphic portions of the footage either by cutting the footage or blurring it, said community relations director Sunny Guerin.

On Feb. 10, the day after the police department named that price, they sent another message: “We have been informed that there is open civil litigation regarding this case and no records will be releasable until the litigation has been fully adjudicated.”

The civil lawsuit was open when the Daily News’ request was filed in April 2021. Guerin did not answer a question about which statute or policy would bar the department from releasing footage involved in civil litigation.

In the meantime, Butler — at the family’s request — released the dash cam footage to NBC News, which posted the video online Feb. 10. A rally for Hassan is planned for April 1, and Butler said his family wanted the public to see what actually happened.

The municipality filed a motion in the federal court case following NBC’s release of the footage last month that aimed to bar Butler from speaking to the media.

Municipal Attorney Pamela Weiss wrote that Butler’s comments about the video during earlier local news coverage and in the NBC article were used to “manipulate public opinion in order to obtain a benefit in this civil case.”

In the motion, she notes the video had not been publicly available but could be requested in a public records request. However, the request the Daily News made was denied.

The motion has not been ruled on and Weiss said she was not able to discuss the motion.

No timeline

Former police chiefs said the department aimed to have officers equipped with body cameras by the end of 2021.

“I’m embarrassed that we’ve sat here and said a year ago that we expected body cameras at the end of 2021, where we’re here a year later and today, the truth is we’re not that much closer to having body cameras,” Kerle said during a meeting with the Public Safety Advisory Commission in February. “So I’m not going to give you a date that we’re going to have body cameras.”

Kerle said he plans to keep online public comments open until March 16 and will review any input before finalizing the draft and presenting it to the municipal legal team for approval. The draft would then be introduced to the police union, where it will likely be subject to collective bargaining that could take months.

Jeremy Conkling, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, said the union takes issue with vague language in the policy and a section that does not allow for officers to review footage from a use of force incident before an interview with a detective.

Conkling said he believes officers should be able to view that footage so they can better recall details that their memory may have been blurred out during an intense or traumatic encounter.

Limited rollout

Kerle said he plans to roll out body cameras on a limited basis because of a need for more records staff. The department of law at the city and state levels will also need to make adjustments to account for more evidence, he said.

The law department’s criminal division has struggled to keep up with the amount of evidence currently available, Kerle said, and adding in more footage would add to the workload.

“I can’t make the department of law purchase the computer software, bring on new people — I can’t make the district attorney do that, either,” Kerle said.

It is not clear how many body cameras the department plans to purchase or how they will decide which officers wear the technology.

“I will decide how many body cameras I buy,” he said. “Whether it’s five or six per shift, I will institute that and we will work out the problems that we have with the city and with the state so that going forward we will have our entire force with body cameras going forward.

“… I’m not going to give you an end date. We still have a lot to overcome, we do. The Anchorage Police Department wants body cameras but we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize criminal cases. We’re going to do it in a way that makes sure that everything is done properly that meets our operational needs and also meets our civil, our legal liabilities.”

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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