The Tempe Police Department’s policy for releasing body worn camera footage dictates that all videos will be entirely blurred by default, something that open-government advocates say violates Arizona’s public records law.
For Sunshine Week, a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government, Arizona Mirror sought the policies from numerous law enforcement agencies in Arizona governing the release and redaction of body worn camera footage. Tempe Police appear to be the only agency with a policy that mandates completely blurring all video that is requested.
“If you’re redacting any public record, then it undermines the purpose of the law, because you can’t see what the government is doing. And when it comes to body worn cameras, this is particularly true,” Jared Keenan, an attorney who focuses on criminal justice issues for the American Civil Liberties Union Arizona, said.
Last month, Tempe Police released body-worn camera footage to the Mirror in response to a records request made in December. With the exception of a handful of frames of video showing a computer screen in Tempe’s jail – which included identifying information – the entirety of the video was blurred.
When asked why the video was fully redacted instead of using blur to selectively redact it, Tempe Police said its policy requires a “medium blur” be placed on all footage. A spokesman said the policy is designed to allow the agency to more quickly release records, as there is one employee who redacts videos in response to records requests and the agency does not have automatic redaction software.
“This was created simply so that the department could follow redaction laws and process requests as quickly as possible,” Det. Greg Bacon with the Tempe Police Department told the Mirror.
That explanation doesn’t jibe with Arizona’s public records law, however, said Dan Barr, an attorney and public records expert.
“Nothing justifies the ‘medium blurring’ of the Tempe Police Dept.,” Barr said.
Although Tempe Police said its policy aims to speed up the release of videos that are requested, that wasn’t the Mirror’s experience. The first request took the agency 61 days to fill. A subsequent request for the same video without the “medium blur” and instead with “object tracking” redactions was filled in just 14 days.
Keenan, the ACLU attorney, said Arizona statute and case law is clear that redactions are supposed to be limited in scope, and there is no burden on the public to specify that it wants minimally redacted material.
“The law doesn’t require you to make a request in any particular way,” Keenan said. “It sounds like Tempe is doing the reverse, and redacting everything until the requestor is coming back with a more specific request.”
Keenan said while agencies are under pressure to produce records in a timely manner – the law requires they be “prompt” in filling records requests – they can often get away with asking for time delays if they have limited resources, such as having only one redaction specialist.
“The law is pretty clear that if they get a public records request, they’re supposed to comply with it – full stop,” Keenan said.
Other agencies treat video the same as other public records
The Mirror reached out to several other police agencies to see what policies, if any, they had for the dissemination of body-worn camera footage.
Policies vary by agency but are fairly similar, however, there are a few interesting cases.
For example, the Scottsdale Police Department’s policy states that the department’s public information officers may “review, download, and disseminate videos specifically related to public information requests without prior approval.” Other videos will be released in accordance with the department’s normal public records policy.
Scottsdale Police also applies “object tracking” to all its videos by default, a spokesman told the Mirror.
For most agencies, body-worn camera policies follow the same rules and guidelines as for other police records.
For example, Phoenix Police referred the Mirror to its requirements for what can and cannot be released in the already existing public records policy.
The Tucson Police Department has an extensive policy governing how it redacts both its body camera footage and other footage it releases.
Not only does Tucson Police follow normal redaction policies, such as redacting dates of birth and medical information, but the department also redacts “information concerning or depictions of critical infrastructure,” government employees not pertinent to a case, and places “heavy blur” on victims of sexual assault and witnesses.
Tucson Police also “mute and blur highly charged & overly emotional responses captured on video.” The department cites an example such as “the mother of a deceased subject that is distraught and out of control and she is not pertinent to the case.”
In 2018, then-Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery sent a letter to police chiefs in the county asking them to consult with his office before releasing body-worn camera footage.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which is headed by Allister Adel because Montgomery was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court, told the Mirror it is not involved in determining how local law enforcement agencies comply with records requests for body-worn camera footage.
“We do not provide guidance to other agencies on how to redact or edit public records, which includes body worn camera footage,” spokeswoman Jennifer Liewer said.