EDITORIAL: What will it take for Anchorage police to respect the will of the people on body cameras?

Enough is enough. After years of delays, it has become abundantly clear that neither Anchorage Police Department leadership nor its police union have any interest in implementing the voters’ mandate that officers wear body cameras while on duty. While professing to be working toward outfitting officers with the cameras, as voters taxed themselves for starting in 2021, all available evidence points in the other direction: By mutual agreement, the two entities have delayed implementation — and even conversations about implementation — time and again, and have now stopped even giving the public a real explanation why.

The saga of Anchorage police promising to adopt body cameras for transparency and accountability began well before voters took the matter into their own hands. The proposal Anchorage residents approved in 2021 was itself a response to an earlier department excuse — that the department wanted to employ the technology, but simply didn’t have sufficient funds to do so. The more than two years and millions of tax dollars collected for body-worn cameras that have yet to materialize have put the lie to that claim. In the meantime, body cameras have proven their worth in establishing transparency and bolstering the public record of major events, such as several school shootings and the highly publicized and politicized assault on Paul Pelosi. In the interim between Anchorage’s vote to implement cameras and today, even other reticent agencies, such as the Alaska State Troopers, have developed their own body-camera programs.

A recent point of contention from APD is that their union is seeking to allow officers to review body camera footage before writing their reports. Although cast as well-intentioned, this would be bad policy. It’s too easy to shape narratives that fit the hard evidence shown on video while leaving out key context. If there are differences between police recollection of events and what is shown on video, the public deserves an explanation for those differences, not after-action revisionism. The people should also have access to unedited raw footage from the cameras, with allowances such as blurring in the rare instances where constitutional privacy concerns are a legitimate issue, in addition to whatever edits are released by the department — in jurisdictions where there is no such requirement, the selective editing, time scaling and omission of important context that raw video would provide is already proving to be a serious issue.

This isn’t to say that police are due no understanding for difficult, split-second decisions they make in the line of duty. It should be easier for officers to explain their reasons for acting the way they did and for the public to be able to see those decisions were justified in the heat of the moment — and also, of course, the rare instances in which they were not. That’s the entire point of body cameras: to provide more of an independent record that can help the public trust the officers who are empowered to enforce our laws are doing so with fairness and without prejudice. When the department resists the cameras’ implementation so strongly, the public cannot help but harbor doubts about whether that trust is warranted.

So what’s next? Anchorage civil rights groups threatened a lawsuit over implementation of the program last fall, and Assembly members have periodically expressed frustration with the ongoing delays. It’s time for both those entities to push harder. The civil rights groups should file the lawsuit. The Assembly should use its powers to get a real explanation and concrete timeline for implementation from the department. If answers aren’t forthcoming, they should pursue any remedy they can, including legal action on behalf of the residents of Anchorage who voted to implement body cams. The Bronson administration should communicate to the department that it bears a responsibility to the people it serves to make good on a long-promised program, and that further delays are unacceptable.

What started out as a public bid for transparency in the wake of highly publicized incidents of police misconduct Outside has become a standoff in which the department is effectively telling residents that they can’t be made to deploy the body camera program. It’s a situation that raises the question: When the police refuse to obey the will of the people, who will compel them to?

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the 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 feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.