NASHVILLE — About 9 in 10 Tennesseans (89%) support public access to police body camera video when it records use of force that results in a citizen’s serious injury or death, according to a new poll by icitizen in collaboration with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The support crosses partisan, age and regional lines.
The results demonstrate strong citizen agreement that such video be disclosed to the public.
In addition, a clear majority of voters (57%) believe the public has a right to see video of officer-involved shootings before an investigation is finished. About one-third (35%) oppose giving the public access before an investigation is finished (8% are unsure). “While it is common for law enforcement to prefer withholding video while an investigation is in process, the public clearly expects this level of transparency and access – especially given recent high-profile incidents in the news,” said icitizen’s VP of Polling, Dr. Mark Keida. “And again, we see broad, majority support for this ‘access right’ across all key demographic and regional subgroups in Tennessee.”
Withholding body camera footage
While Tennesseans universally support access to video in police-related shootings, they admit instances where this right could be limited. Fully six-in-ten (60%) believe “the public should have access to video from police body camera video that records officer-involved shootings unless a judge decides releasing it would harm an ongoing investigation.” This is compared to 28 percent who believe that “citizens should always have a right to see video from an officer’s body camera when it records an officer-involved shooting,” and just 12 percent who think “police should be able to withhold video of an officer-involved shooting for any reason. They should not have to seek approval from anyone, such as a judge, to withhold the video.”
“The results show that citizens understand the importance of public oversight of law enforcement agencies in these most serious situations when a citizen is killed or seriously injured. It also shows that while some citizens think there may at times be legitimate reasons to withhold the video during an investigation, they don’t think police should be allowed to make that decision on their own,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “The clear presumption is for access and openness.”
The law currently allows law enforcement discretion to withhold police records if they are part of an ongoing investigation. But practices vary. For example, the Gallatin Police Department released video of an officer shooting and killing a woman with an ax; the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department would not release its video when it shot and killed a fleeing suspect, even after the deputy was cleared and returned to duty.
TCOG collaborated with icitizen to develop questions to measure public opinion about the use of body cameras. Last year, a bill in the Legislature allowed police to withhold footage during an ongoing investigation and prosecution, which can last anywhere from a few months to years. TCOG opposed parts of the bill because it meant that footage from a police-officer involved shooting could be kept from the public for an undetermined amount of time at the sole discretion of police. The bill did not pass, and lawmakers instructed the Advisory Committee on Open Government to study the issue over the summer and present recommendations in January 2017. ACOG is scheduled to meet for the first time this year on Monday, Aug. 29 in Nashville.
The use of body cameras was widely supported in the survey, with 92 percent saying they favored requiring police officers to use body cameras while on duty. Some police departments and sheriff’s departments have already started using body cameras.
About the poll
The poll surveyed 531 registered voters online from July 25-27. To achieve an accurate demographic representation of the public, the data were sampled and weighted to U.S. Census benchmarks for gender, age, region, education, income and race, and to voter file benchmarks for age, region and gender. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that researches, advocates and educates about transparency in government.
For more information, contact:
Executive Director, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
Vice President of Research and Polling, icitizen
NOTE: An earlier version of this poll incorrectly stated the percentage of Tennesseans who supported citizen access to body camera footage that recorded use of force resulting in death or serious injury. That percentage is 89 percent, and the article has been updated to reflect the corrected number.