The situation is all too familiar: the police race to a home in response to a 911 call. It’s a domestic disturbance, another fight.
Autumn Steele and her husband were once again fighting again, and he makes the emergency phone call. Things happen fast and the officer arrives, pulls out his gun and then — frightened by the family dog—shoots Autumn, killing her with a bullet to her chest.
Since the January 6th shooting, Steele’s family has been fighting with the Burlington, Iowa Police Department over their attempt to view the 28 minutes of body camera video recorded by the two officers who responded that day. Police have held that the videos are confidential. They say that the shooting was tragic but reasonable, given that the dog “attacked.” State investigators released a 12-second clip from the videos, but the family says it only raises more questions about what happened.
“I deserve to know what happened to my daughter. The public deserves to know,” said Steele’s mother. “How can they keep this from us?”
In Burlington and elsewhere around the country, police and other officials are blocking the release of body camera videos, but at the same time allowing the officers accused of wrongdoing access to the footage. Police have shot and killed 848 people in the United States in 2015, according to a Washington Post database tracking every fatal shooting (That number has increased by 88 deaths in less than five weeks since the original article was published.
The article said that of the 760 deaths from January until October 8th, The Post found that 49 of the incidents were captured by body camera (roughly 6%). Of those, only 21—less than half—have been released to the public, and in several of those cases, the footage, like the Steel video in Iowa, was severely cut or edited. Meanwhile, virtually all of the 36 departments involved in those shootings have let their officers see the videos before giving statements to investigators, The Washington Post found. Civil and human rights groups argue that this access could help some officers change their accounts to obscure misconduct and avoid prosecution.
While individual police departments are adopting rules on the local level, police chiefs and unions are lobbying state officials to make favorable policies the law. In 36 states and in D.C., lawmakers introduced legislation to create procedures for the use of body cameras, many with the goal of increasing transparency. However, of the 138 bills, 20 were enacted, and eight of those expanded the use of body cameras. Another 10 set up legal roadblocks to public access in states, including Florida, South Carolina, and Texas. Many of the rest of the bill died after police chiefs and unions posed strong opposition to their passing.
Even with the growing popularity of body cameras, fatal police encounters are still rarely captured by law enforcement video. Only about a third of the nation’s 18,000 police departments have implemented the use of body cameras, and some issue them to just a few officers. However, President Obama announced $23 million in grants in September to be used to expand the use of the cameras to enhance “transparency, accountability and credibility” in police encounters with the public.
These funds should help record more officers’ actions in deadly situations with the public. Whether the public will get to see the video may be another story.