The Commercial Appeal reports today that the city of Memphis is moving ahead with a multimillion-dollar plan to equip its police officers with body cams, but also presented a policy that would deny citizen requests to see video from the cameras if the video is related to an ongoing investigation.
This would include incidents that involve an officer-involved shooting, Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen told council members.
The proposed policy on access to video was not voted upon, and McGowen said the policy could be adjusted if it’s not working, according to the Commercial Appeal.
Lucian Pera, the Commercial Appeal’s attorney, and president of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, was quoted in the story saying that for the city to rely on the “ongoing investigation” exception to the Tennessee Public Records Act would be an “overly broad reading” of the act.
“Besides,” he said, “nothing in the Public Records Act prohibits the City from releasing such records and, since the biggest purpose of body-cams is public accountability by the police, how can that possibly be effective if body-cam footage is secret for years?”
The announcement of the policy was part of a discussion about adding $2 million to the budget to help pay for a five-year $9.4 million contract with body cam supplier Taser International. Police Interim Director Mike Rallings said the department plans to hire 10 part-time video analysts to redact information from the video, including images of victims of crimes, minors, nudity, dead bodies, graphic images, personal info and private spaces. Under Tennessee law, after an investigation is finished, police documents, which would include video, are no longer exempt from public disclosure under the Tennessee Public Records Act.
See the full story in the Commercial Appeal: City Council OKs $2 million for police cam expenses
Memphis would not be the first law enforcement agency in Tennessee to deny access to video involving officer-involved shootings. In January, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Sevier County Sherriff’s Office declined to release video footage of events leading up to the fatal shooting of a local man by a Sevier County sheriff’s deputy in January.
The Mountain Press reported at the time that the sheriff’s office also would not release the name of the deputy involved in the shooting. In that Jan. 13 incident, 29-year-old Brandon Bearden was shot to death by a deputy who said that Bearden brandished a weapon as he tried to apprehend him.
The Mountain Press had asked TBI, the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney general’s office for copies of body camera or dash cam footage from the incident, but were denied.
The Sevier County Sherriff’s Department equipped all of its patrol officers with body cameras in 2015, according to The Mountain Press.