Police videos of officers shooting unarmed black men have sparked angry protests in Chicago, Sacramento and other U.S. cities. But AP’s Ryan Foley wondered: Is it the norm for departments to release footage from body-worn and dashboard cameras?
Foley, based in Iowa City, Iowa, a member of AP’s state government team, investigated the transparency of police departments for Sunshine Week, which highlights journalism’s role in promoting open government. He found that many departments, in fact, routinely deny public access to their videos of officer-involved shootings and other uses of force.
Foley’s initial reporting challenge was simply identifying cases of officer-involved shootings or uses of force across the country for which video existed. In some cases, he made multiple calls and sent numerous emails – only to find that the officers involved didn’t have body or dash cameras in use. He screened those cases out and continued reporting, finally filing open records requests related to roughly 20 recent use-of-force incidents in a dozen states. His letters were met with denial after denial. The police departments routinely withheld officer video, citing a broad exemption to state open records laws: They claimed that releasing the video would undermine an ongoing investigation.
To be sure, some departments do release video within days or weeks of a controversial incident. But most police departments tested by the AP refused, even when the incident was months old. In Georgia, a county sheriff’s office refused to release video of a 22-year-old man who allegedly shot himself to death while struggling with police, an explanation that has been questioned and sparked protests. The department in Sugar Land, Texas, recently released dramatic video of officers rescuing a woman from a lake – but refused to divulge footage of a 2016 struggle in which a man alleges he was beaten and severely injured by officers. Police said they have good reason for withholding video during investigations, but critics say the exemption is often misapplied to keep embarrassing or compromising video footage from public view.
Trying to tell the story visually also presented a challenge for Central Region video journalist Noreen Nasir: How to create a video for a story about the lack of police videos? She did not want to rely on generic images of body cameras. Instead, she dug through AP’s archives to highlight the moments and emotions over the last several years that followed the deaths of unarmed black men. The most prominent of those was the fatal police shooting five years ago of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the killing that set off a nationwide push for police to wear body cameras.
Beyond that, Nasir wanted to incorporate the voices of people affected by the shootings, but these were often in remote towns far from any AP bureau. One of the best subjects identified by Foley was a woman in North Dakota whose brother died after being shot in the back of the head during a struggle with police. Nasir was able to record an interview with her on Zoom, the AP’s conferencing software, adding a crucial perspective to the video.
At the same time, Panagiotis Mouzakis, multimedia animation producer in London, used the many denial letters Foley had collected to create a video graphic that showed them piling up on a desktop. It was subsequently incorporated into Nasir’s video.
Finally, Beat Team visuals editor Alina Hartounian developed a social plan that helped the package find a huge audience.
For shining a light on how police departments continue to withhold visual evidence and for devising creative ways to illustrate the story, Foley, Nassir and Mouzakis share this week’s Best of the States award.