For nearly two years, the New Orleans Police Department has cited its officer-worn body cameras as a boon to transparency, crediting the technology with improving community-police relations.
Footage from the devices has been introduced in criminal cases and aided the authorities in deciding whether officer-involved shootings and other uses of force by police were justified.
The public, however, has rarely seen those images, even after investigations were completed, and the NOPD has lacked a written policy for publishing the videos.
On Wednesday, the department announced its first guidelines for releasing body camera footage following so-called “critical incidents” — a plan that allows local and federal prosecutors to give input on whether releasing a video might jeopardize an ongoing criminal inquiry.
According to the NOPD, critical incidents include any police shooting, whether or not someone is struck; in-custody deaths; uses of force and vehicle pursuits resulting in hospitalization or death; and cases of officers striking someone in the head “with an impact weapon, whether intentional or not.”
“I want to work quickly to share (the videos) with the public if we know releasing them won’t impact the safety of everyone involved or the outcome of investigations,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison told reporters at NOPD headquarters. “My priority is to do everything that I can to make sure the NOPD is transparent with the public about the way we police.”
Under the new rules, the Police Department’s Public Integrity Bureau will collect recordings of any critical incidents and, within 48 hours, provide the footage to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office and the NOPD’s Compliance Bureau — a timetable that also is expected to expedite investigations.
Those agencies will weigh privacy concerns and other factors and offer their feedback to the Public Integrity Bureau, whose deputy chief will make a recommendation to Harrison within seven days of the incident on whether the footage should be made public. The superintendent then will have two days to decide whether to release the video.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan wields veto power, Harrison said, and may issue an order to release a video over the superintendent’s objection. Morgan is overseeing a sweeping reform pact between the Police Department and the U.S. Justice Department.
Any footage made public will be published online at www.nola.gov/nopd.
The department previously treated body camera videos like any other evidence collected in criminal cases, which typically is not released until a case has been fully adjudicated, said Tyler Gamble, a Police Department spokesman.
New Orleans police began using body cameras in 2014 and now have 620 of them; Harrison said all officers responding to calls for service are equipped with the devices.
Susan Hutson, the city’s independent police monitor, said that while video of police shootings has fueled outrage in some cities recently, it also can quell community unrest when it demonstrates the police acted appropriately.
“It’s getting information out there sooner rather than later,” Hutson said. “That’s the trend all around the country. People want to know what’s going on.”
But Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, expressed concern that the release of body camera footage will “encourage people to play Monday morning quarterback on the actions taken by police officers, when in reality the video only represents one aspect of a call for service, from one perspective, with no context.”
“It’s really just one slice of a big pie, but it’s really easy to assume that you know everything that there is to know once you watch this,” Livaccari said in an interview. “There are privacy issues that haven’t even revealed themselves at this point.”
Gamble said the Police Department plans to blur the faces of any officers, juveniles, witnesses and victims in the footage.
The policy, which Harrison said has been “a long time coming,” becomes effective immediately.
He said there are “a couple of investigations that are closed” in which body camera footage likely will be made available “in the very near future.”
Body-worn cameras captured two incidents last year in which New Orleans police killed suspects. In both incidents, the officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing following internal investigations. Footage from those case is expected to be made public as early as this week.
The new rules won’t apply to the controversial shooting death this month of Eric Harris, a young man gunned down in Central City by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies who had chased him from the West Bank across the Crescent City Connection.
New Orleans police weren’t involved in Harris’ shooting, and Harrison noted that the footage from that shooting was captured by surveillance cameras near the scene rather than body-worn cameras. That footage likely won’t be released until federal and local investigators decide whether the shooting was lawful.
Livaccari said he expects body camera footage to be released only sparingly, adding that he believes it will be “interesting to see how this plays out moving forward.”
“Most critical incidents aren’t critical incidents because there was a party going on. Most critical incidents involve some type of crime,” he said. “The trick is going to be to juggle releasing the videos at the same time as managing ongoing criminal litigation.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.