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It's (past) time to release the body camera footage.

17 October 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

“If the footage is good for the police, release it fast. If the footage is bad for the police, release it faster.” Screen Shot 2016 10 17 at 10.40.34 AM

This week, the ACLU of Utah and cooperating attorney David Reymann will go before the Salt Lake County GRAMA (Government Records Access & Management Act) Appeals Board to argue for the release of body camera footage and other information relevant to the February 2016 shooting of then-17-year-old Abdi Mohamed.

The ACLU has been fighting for release of this information since May. The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office has released some information, but not the body camera footage from officers involved in the shooting, which left Abdi in a wheelchair.

Use of body-mounted cameras by our law enforcement officers can only perform its critical transparency functions if footage is made available to the public, not just to government officials behind closed doors.

Several law enforcement leaders – in Utah and around the country – have argued publicly for quick release of any footage of high profile incidents. According to one law enforcement leader: “If the footage is good for the police, release it fast. If the footage is bad for the police, release it faster.” 

This statement acknowledges that it is better - for law enforcement, for community relationships, for goveernment transparency - to have all relevant information about such high-profile incidents shared with the public quickly, than to leave community members to wonder what is being "kept in the dark." 

Extensive public statements by government officials, as well as the community-originated news that spreads like wildfire via social media, have already shaped public opinion about the incident. The footage of the incident will provide critical context and answer important community questions about what happened to Abdi Mohamed.

In response to our GRAMA request, the County initially argued that the footage had to be kept secret until the investigation into the shooting was concluded, so that witnesses to the shooting wouldn’t be unduly influenced by viewing it.  

When the investigation was concluded in August, the District Attorney’s office announced that not only was the shooting of Abdi Mohamed justified, but that the District Attorney planned to file criminal charges against the young man.

Additionally, the District Attorney’s office decided that because of pending criminal charges, the footage of Abdi’s shooting would continue to be kept secret.

It must be noted that Salt Lake City’s Civilian Review Board has seen the footage of the shooting, as well as other relevant information, as part of a formal review process. The Civilian Review Board announced its opinion of the incident last month, describing it as “not within policy.”

The ACLU of Utah – with the support of many interested members of the public and several activist/advocacies groups committed to law enforcement transparency and accountability – believes that this footage should be public, and should have been made public much earlier. The public should be allowed to come to its own conclusions, as the Civilian Review Board did, in this high profile situation, without interference from government gatekeepers.  

Recent legislation, worked on and supported by the ACLU of Utah, made no special provisions for police body camera footage. Such footage is subject to the usual GRAMA statutes, and under GRAMA, this footage must be made public.

Body cameras can’t work to repair deficits in police-community trust without the right policies and practices in place. Early release in the right thing to do. 

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