More than a year after the city of Mobile created its first policy on police body cameras and more than two years after officials dedicated $2 million toward their procurement, a lawsuit filed by a local television station has prompted its public release.
On Thursday, WALA Fox10 — a local affiliate of the Meredith Corporation — filed suit against the city after officials denied a request to produce the MPD’s policy regarding body cameras worn by its uniformed officers.According to Fox10, less than five hours after the lawsuit was filed in Mobile County Circuit Court, George Talbot, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s communication director, released the policy to the news station while simultaneously publishing it on the city’s website.
At this point, it’s unclear how the disclosure of that policy might affect the freshly-filed suit. On Friday, an associate news director with WALA told Lagniappe the station couldn’t comment on the city’s decision to release the policy, which appears to have been drafted in March 2016.
The lawsuit indicates the station’s legal team began requesting the body camera policy last September. It also claims the city agreed to and then failed to seek an attorney general’s opinion related to the release of footage captured on MPD’s body cameras.
When asked about the delay in releasing the policy, spokeswoman Laura Byrne said the Stimpson Administration and the city’s lawyers followed the same process that is typically used when requests for public records are filed.
“Like any public records request, there’s a process,” Byrne said. “Anytime we process a request, we had to speak to our legal team, and after it was reviewed, it was approved for release. It’s part of our process. You send in an application to the communications office, then it’s routed to our legal team, and once they’ve deemed it a public record, it can be released.”
Byrne did confirm the city has yet to seek an opinion from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office related to the MPD’s body camera policy, which Fox10’s lawsuit claims it agreed to do last year. However, she said that’s something the city is “still pursuing.”
“We have to get approval from the [Mobile City] Council to send that request to the attorney general, and you’ll probably see that on the council’s agenda not this week, but the following week,” Byrne said.
She added that item wouldn’t be requested by the administration this week because Stimpson will be overseas attending the Paris Air Show with other state and local officials.
While it only took officials five hours to produce a copy of the policy once Fox10’s lawsuit was filed, the city has filed no formal response to the litigation. Besides the policy, Fox10 claims to have made previous requests for footage and correspondence related to specific incidents.
Attorney Carroll Sullivan, who is representing the station, declined to comment on what the release of camera policy would mean for the lawsuit that’s still pending in circuit court.
Lights, camera, controversy
After the 2014 shooting of Mike Brown caused nationwide unrest and riots in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, law enforcement agencies around the country put an increased focus on outfitting patrol officers with body cameras.
Mobile was no different. In March 2015, the city council agreed to enter into a five-year, $1.9 million contract with TASER to use its Axon Flex cameras and supporting software.
At the time, former Public Safety Director Adm. Rich Landolt said the camera systems would be operational by that summer, yet MPD’s policy indicates the guidelines for their use weren’t drafted until March 4, 2016.
Then, last June, a local officer-involved shooting prompted a renewed debate about the issue when it was revealed MPD Officer Harold Hurst was not wearing a body camera during the traffic stop that resulted in the death of 19-year-old Michael Moore.
A Mobile County grand jury ultimately cleared Hurst of any wrongdoing, though a federal civil rights investigation was launched by the Department of Justice. More than a year later, it has still not officially been concluded.At the time of Moore’s shooting, Councilman Levon Manzie said incidents of that nature were “the reason” the city spent millions on body cameras, adding that, had Hurst been wearing one, the city could have potentially avoided “the unrest, speculation, allegations and distrust” that followed Moore’s death. Former Police Chief James Barber told Lagniappe a review of the MPD’s policy was being conducted shortly after that incident, but an MPD spokesperson recently confirmed that no changes were ever made to the policy.
Another incident created public interest in body cameras last September when students from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School were pepper sprayed by an MPD officer while painting the Midtown cannon after their annual football matchup with neighborhood rival Murphy High School.
Fox10 also cited that incident — one captured on the responding officers’ body cameras — in its lawsuit. Barber ultimately issued a personal apology, saying students weren’t given enough time to comply with the responding officers’ orders before the spray was deployed.
Despite repeated requests from several media outlets, the footage from those body cameras was never released with MPD citing an “ongoing investigation” into the incident. With the policy now available to the public, though, it’s clear Barber alone had the authority to grant those requests.
“Only the chief of police, or his designee, shall reveal the existence and/or content of video recordings to the media,” the policy states, adding civilians can be shown video footage to further the efforts of “criminal investigations,” “internal investigations” or “serve a public safety interest” with approval of the chief of police.
The release of policy also revealed that MPD is using TASER’s online storage option, evidence.com, to store footage — allowing officers and supervisors to remotely access footage from body cameras they’re approved to review. The policy states “any viewing of video in Evidence.com” should be “notated with a reason for the viewing” in each video file.
While some have criticized the practice of turning over video evidence to a private, for-profit company, TASER has maintained that offering an established network allows law enforcement agencies to avoid the cost, training and security that would be needed to maintain and protect their own servers.
In an annual report to its shareholders in 2014 — the first year evidence.com was on the market — Taser said, “utilizing our cloud-based solution allows agencies to rapidly adopt new technology without the cost and complexity of managing the hardware or software in-house.”
The full text of MPD’s policies governing body cameras can be viewed below.