Editorials

Is the Anchorage Police Department backing away from body camera transparency?

Anchorage residents have spoken clearly: They want more transparency from their police department, and they’re willing to pay for it.

The Anchorage Police Department and the municipality say they’re on the same page as the people. But their actions with regard to long-delayed body cameras for officers tell a different story.

In recent remarks, Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said that despite earlier promises from the department to have the body-worn cameras online by the end of 2021, there is still no timeline for when they will be deployed — and he won’t commit to one.

Other major items Chief Kerle and the department won’t commit to with regard to body-worn cameras include:

• How many officers will wear them.

The clear intent of community members and the public in passing the ballot measure funding the cameras in 2021 was that all officers would wear the cameras on duty to establish a more independent record of events. But Kerle now says he plans to implement use of the cameras at perhaps “five or six per shift” before eventually transitioning to their use by the full force at an undefined point in the future.

• How the public will be able to access the footage.

In public comment so far, community members have made it clear that their expectation and preference is that body camera footage will be released to the public proactively, not as part of the lengthy, expensive public records request process that often results in ludicrous fees and outright denials, in contravention of Alaska’s public records laws. But APD’s draft body cam policy does not provide for automatic public release of the footage. Municipal lawyers say they’re not sure they can square public access to the footage with privacy protections in Alaska law.

Despite the municipality’s protestations, its personnel who are in charge of crafting policy related to body cameras appear to be dragging their feet and obfuscating the process intentionally at this point. Alaska’s public records law is clear when it comes to municipal records — the first sentence of the Alaska Public Records Act reads: “Unless specifically provided otherwise, the public records of all public agencies are open to inspection by the public under reasonable rules during regular office hours.” The municipal attorneys appear to be leaning heavily on a particular exception to that law for matter that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of a suspect, defendant, victim, or witness.” But in service of an exception that could apply in a small fraction of cases, when police enter a person’s home, for instance, the municipality and its police department have delayed implementation of the entire body camera program for almost a year since its passage.

It’s not as though this is some novel legal ground that has never been explored before. Roughly half the police departments in the U.S. use body cameras, including several in Alaska. And APD has been promising it wants body cameras and plans to implement them as soon as policy concerns are worked out since at least 2015. There are no insurmountable hurdles to a transparent body-cam policy that fulfills the public’s interest. The municipality is ostensibly concerned it may face a lawsuit over a breach of privacy, and to avoid one, APD and the city are so far willing to put themselves at risk of a use-of-force lawsuit — which are far more common and which the municipality is already facing — that body camera footage could clear up.

There’s a massive public interest in being able to verify that the trust we put in our public safety officers is well placed. Anchorage residents understand that; they voted to tax themselves an additional $1.8 million per year to make it happen after the municipality made no progress toward body cams for more than half a decade. Now the municipality is not only continuing to delay, its proposed policies have nowhere near the level of transparency that the people expect and deserve. Residents seeking corroboration of the official record shouldn’t face a marathon request process, hundreds of dollars of fees and waits of months or even years — or sometimes outright denial with scant justification.

Former Police Chief Ken McCoy agrees. He said he believes the public should have access to the footage, and some of his earlier drafts for the body-cam policy reflected that. “I know the municipal legal department doesn’t agree with that and they feel we can’t do that based on privacy law,” McCoy said in a discussion with Alaska Black Caucus members last month. “However, I think that’s a conversation we need to keep pushing and that we need to have.”

McCoy is right. Unless we push for it, the municipality will be perfectly happy to continue to delay the use of body cams and to keep recorded footage well away from public view. Public comment on body cameras and policy related to their use and footage is 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 that the footage could sit on hard drives under lock and key, far from the public’s ability to access it. Body cameras can be a meaningful tool in helping police do their jobs well and maintaining trust between officers and the public — but only if the public has faith that they can see what the cameras capture.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the Anchorage Daily News editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.

Sponsored