Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott urged the city-parish’s police body camera committee on Tuesday to set detailed guidelines for when officers should start recording, how those videos should be reviewed and when they will be released in compliance with Louisiana’s public records laws.
This, he said, will ensure that the public sees the police force as transparent.
Scott’s comments sparked a discussion among the committee members that went deeper than the public records implications of the body camera videos. Baton Rouge Police Department Chief Carl Dabadie and some committee members disagreed about whether officers should be able to view their own video footage before writing up incident reports, especially in officer-involved shootings.
Dabadie and former BRPD Chief Jeff LeDuff argued that allowing officers to review video before writing up reports will make the reports more accurate. They said research shows that police officers often forget details after high-stress incidents, which could lead to a report not matching the corresponding video.
“It’s beneficial not only to the officer but to the public because we’re getting it right,” Dabadie said. “He can’t change the video; the video is what it is.”
LeDuff attested that he once believed a suspect fired one shot during a charged incident, when it turned out to be three.
“Why not get to the truth right out the gate?” LeDuff asked.
But other committee members, including East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle and Paul Guidry, a criminal justice instructor at Baton Rouge Community College, argued that officers should have to write a report before being swayed by the video. They said doing so will create two vital pieces of evidence in officer-involved shootings.
Marcelle compared it to giving a report after a car wreck, saying officers ask people for statements without allowing them to view videos of what has occurred. She and others said allowing officers to review their own video footage before writing up reports could lead to problems with police mistrust.
Dabadie defended the police force, saying his officers are not the same as those who have been subjects of national scrutiny and use-of-force debates around the country.
He also said officers after shootings are not allowed to speak to others and already have to give statements to the internal affairs department before they can review video of an incident.
“We don’t like being covered with the same blanket of Chicago or Ferguson (Missouri) or New York or any other place that mishandled an investigation,” Dabadie said. “We work very hard not to let that happen here. Thank God, right now, we haven’t had an incident of those magnitudes, and I pray that we don’t. But if that does happen here, I do believe that we will have transparency, we will get to the truth and we will get to it in a speedy manner.”
Scott said PAR does not take a position on whether police should be allowed to view footage before writing reports. He added that he, as a former reporter, used to like to check recordings of interviews before publishing a story.
His comments also triggered discussion about the public’s right to view records versus a citizen’s right to privacy.
Scott said he expects the Police Department’s body cameras program to become a model for the rest of the state and that the committee should look to the state’s records laws for how to release videos as public records. He said the committee should not be tempted to create new laws to skirt around the videos being labeled as public records.
“There are a lot of things you can do to still make documents available but still make them safe,” Scott said.
Dabadie said the department already has been releasing in-car camera footage for years and that he expects releasing body camera footage should not differ much.
Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso said he worried about releasing sensitive videos, such as those of rape victims being interviewed, and that videos could be uploaded online. Scott and Marcelle said exemptions in public records law and the ability to redact footage should address those concerns.
“Media are already self-censoring on some of these issues,” said Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate, who joined Scott in his presentation. “Our reporters can sit through a rape trial and know the name of the rape victim and never report it.”
The Advocate, like many news organizations, has a policy of not identifying victims of sexual assault.
Some Baton Rouge officers already are outfitted with body cameras, though the Police Department is hunting for a more permanent vendor.
They reported minor problems with the current cameras, such as having problems keeping them on uniforms and not being able to figure out when cameras have stopped recording or run out of memory.