SALT LAKE CITY — Describing a need to balance public responsiveness with due process, Salt Lake officials say police body camera video from "critical incidents" will be released after 10 days.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill stood together Tuesday to announce the new policy for the Salt Lake City Police Department.
Effective immediately, all body camera video from an officer-involved critical incident — such as an officer-involved shooting, a fatal injury caused by an officer's vehicle, the death of a person in law enforcement custody, or a person who dies while an officer is arresting that person or attempting to prevent that person from escaping — will be classified as a public record 10 business days after the incident barring any "unusual or unforeseen circumstances," according to the mayor.
After those 10 days, video can be released subject to conditions of the state's public records laws.
"Government should always strive to be responsive to the needs of residents while holding to values such as due process. I believe this policy carefully balances the need for transparency while providing due process for investigations," Biskupski said of her new executive order.
Protesters who gathered in front of City Hall Tuesday evening slammed the order, saying they believe the "unusual or unforeseen circumstances" exception gives the city broad power to hide videos from the public. Speakers in the group of about 40 called for the Salt Lake City Council to shrink the window from 10 days to 24 hours and for the city to issue stronger, immediate penalties to officers who shoot civilians.
"Transparency without accountability just makes this a shooting gallery," Jacob Jensen said at the rally organized by Utah Against Police Brutality. Afterward, roughly two dozen spoke at the council's weekly meeting. Chairman Stan Penfold read a statement saying in part that the council was listening and would consider any available information from the police department on whether more training or changes to policy were necessary.
Protesters noted the mayor's announcement came abruptly Tuesday in advance of its planned protest following the death of Patrick Harmon, 50, a black man shot after he ran from police August 13. The shooting was ruled justified two weeks ago.
In January, the mayor announced her proposed executive order on the heels of the shooting of then-17-year-old Abdullahi "Abdi" Mohamed by two Salt Lake police officers. The officers' actions were determined to be legally justified, and Mohamed was charged in 3rd District Juvenile Court with aggravated robbery and drug possession.
Mohamed was shot in February 2016. But because of the pending legal charges, Gill would not release the video, arguing that it would potentially compromise Mohamed's rights. Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, fought for a year to get the video released. The video was eventually released after it was shown in open court.
Since January, the mayor has received input from a variety of individuals and groups, including members of the public, the American Civil Liberties Union and Gill's office, in developing the new policy.
"By having a policy in place which favors transparency, we can help eliminate unwarranted suspicion toward our law enforcement brothers and sisters and investigative agencies while we continue this important dialogue that we've been having," Biskupski said.
In January, Gill was hesitant about the premature release of body camera video. His main concern was tainting the integrity of an investigation. For example, if a video is released too soon, some potential witnesses may change their stories when asked by detectives about what they "remember" about an incident.
On Tuesday, Gill called the new executive order a "workable policy" that balances preserving the interest of an investigation while remaining transparent to the public. Should a circumstance come up that would require a video be held longer than 10 days, the order allows for the district attorney's office to request that the police department not release it.
In the mayor's original proposal, she said the district attorney would have to submit in writing why a video should remain sealed. The final policy, "recognizes that unforeseen circumstances impeding an investigation may arise and we or the agency can communicate that to finish the critical interviews, but the default is to release as soon as possible" and does not require a written submission, Gill said
When asked to give an example of "unusual or unforeseen circumstances," Gill said key witnesses might not be able to be interviewed by law enforcers within 10 days because they are injured.
Biskupski was quick to point out, however, that that would be the exception and not regular practice.
"What we foresee is that coming up rarely. That the city really will be falling back to a transparency position unless something really significant arises," she said.
When asked if the Abdi Mohamed video would have been released sooner if this policy had been in place, Gill said, "I think that certainly this would have speeded that up."
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown also believes the new policy would help build trust within the community.
"This comes down to balance. Not releasing body worn camera of a critical incident does not mean something is justified or not justified. Releasing it goes a long way in installing community trust," he said. "We still have to trust the process. The video camera is always one angle. There's always what the officer perceived, statements from witnesses. So the whole thing falls into the due process of the investigation. But putting the video out right now will help with the public trust that we've worked so hard to build."
When asked if there is any fear that releasing body camera video would tarnish a potential jury or result in a case being tried in the court of public perception before it ever makes it to an actual courtroom, Brown replied, "I dare bet anybody could point out one incident across this country where that has happened."
Gill said the issue of making policies for body camera video is still developing across the country. In looking at what other agencies do while developing a policy for Salt Lake City, Gill said it ranged from releasing video immediately to never releasing it at all. The mayor's policy, he said, is a good compromise.8 comments on this story
"This is not saying we're going to wait for nine months, and this is not saying we're going to wait for nine hours. It's trying to find that sweet spot where we can meet the majority of our cases where the investigation is done within that time. And if there are some unforeseen circumstances from a complex (incident), then it carves out a space to meet that investigative purpose," he said.
Likewise, Gill said he hoped the city's new policy would serve as a model for all 19 law enforcement agencies in Salt Lake County to adopt. Right now, every agency has its own policy on the release of video, he said.
Moving forward, Gill said if there are legal issues with the policy or new legal developments that arise due to a video being released, they will be addressed.
Contributing: Annie Knox, Katie McKellar