Twice in the last few months, the Fort Worth police has done something police departments typically don’t do: They chose to release body camera footage of controversial arrests. Experts say body-worn cameras are still an emerging technology, and they raise some thorny issues about what the public is allowed to see and who the cameras serve.
Last week, a 50-second cellphone video began circulating on social media. Shot from an onlooker driving by, the video shows a man on his stomach, with two Fort Worth officers on top of him. One officer delivers sharp punches to the side of his body. The man cries out on the tape.
The department issued a statement saying the bystander video didn’t show the full context of the arrest, and then released body camera footage from its officers, citing transparency.
The officers were responding to a call from paramedics who said the man in the video, Forrest Curry, had tried to punch them. The department says Curry was combative and appeared intoxicated, and it took four officers almost five minutes to subdue him. In the process, an officer followed training and jabbed Curry four times in the side so he’d release his arms and they could handcuff him.
Curry’s lawyers say he was disoriented from a seizure.
This video release follows another release a few months earlier, when Chief Joel Fitzgerald announced he had fired a sergeant for ordering a woman to be Tasered unnecessarily.
Chiefs choosing transparency
Chuck Wexler with the Police Executive Research Forum says chiefs are often loathe to release body camera videos of controversial incidents. But across the country, he’s seeing signs that that’s changing, whether it's to justify officer's actions or acknowledge wrongdoing.
“Bad news doesn’t get better with time. And whatever the news, whether it’s bad, good or indifferent, you’ve got to get it out there,” Wexler says.
Wexler co-wrote recommendations for body-worn camera policies for the Department of Justice in 2014 that said departments should err on the side of transparency. His organization trained the Fort Worth Police Department on de-escalation techniques last summer.
In Fort Worth, the decision to release the body camera footage in the punching incident came against the wishes of Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilsen.
Wexler says prosecutors and police unions often want to block or slow the release of body camera footage in controversial cases, but that police chiefs are increasingly bucking them. He points to Asheville, North Carolina, which released body camera footage of a man being beaten by a city cop after jaywalking. And he says last year, the New York Police Department quickly released footage of a deadly police shooting.
“By no means is this necessarily the norm yet, but I think you’re going to see more of it, a recognition that transparency and communication and getting the information out quickly is more important than any administration issues,” Wexler says.
Who do body cameras serve?
For Harlan Yu, though, these selective releases are not enough. Yu works for Upturn, which studies how technology affects social justice and civil rights. He says chiefs shouldn’t get to pick and choose which footage gets released; they should follow clear and consistent policies.
“Departments should be required to release certain kinds of footage — so after any serious use of force, certainly after any police shooting, fatal or not," Yu says. "Police departments need to commit to making that footage publicly available after a short period of time.”
Chicago and Los Angeles have adopted rules like that. But in a survey of body camera policies in 75 police departments across the country, Yu says most were found lacking on a range of issues from procedural questions to privacy and civil rights concerns. That, he says, undermines body cameras as accountability tools.
“We’re seeing body-worn cameras being used primarily in service of the interests of the departments and its officers, rather than the interests of the public.,” he says.
Yu says, in Texas, a 2015 state law bans the release of body camera footage of fatal police shootings until all investigations are concluded, which can take many months. That, he says, weakens transparency.