BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Why can’t we see the body camera video from the officer-involved shooting at the Galleria? That’s the number one question so many of you are asking and the short answer is because of Alabama’s open records law.
There are several hurdles to getting our hands on any police body camera video, including footage from inside the Galleria.
First, Alabama doesn’t have any state laws governing when or how police body camera footage should be released: no timelines, no guidelines, nothing.
So, you have to file an open records request for that kind of information, and that’s where the semi truck-sized holes in Alabama’s open records law become a problem.
“Statutorily, there are a number of exemptions that make it basically toothless,” says Frank Knaack of Alabama Appleseed, a group that’s part of a coalition of conservative and progressive groups pushing the legislature to update the state’s law.
Right now, if you file an open records request, the agency you’re asking for information doesn’t have a deadline for when it has to respond, it’s not penalized if it never responds, and it can set the price you have to pay for the work it takes to get what you’re asking for.
“There’s zero-accountability in our open records law, and it creates a system where our government lacks any basic transparency and accountability because of that,” Knaack said.
There are a ton of exceptions to the open records law, and one of the biggest is for investigative materials--which includes body camera video. Police don’t have to turn those over until the investigation is over---and it’s up to them to decide when that is, and even then sometimes they don’t have to release everything.
“Bodycameras can be a win-win,” Knaack says. “They’re a tool that can make sure when an officer did something wrong they’re held accountable but also a tool that when the officer did something right, they can show they did the right thing. That’s why we think law enforcement should be in favor of this to. what we’re trying to do is not stack the deck in favor of one side or the other.”
“I do expect some action because of the tragedies across the country, specifically in Alabama," State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) says. "I expect you’ll see legislation on guidelines and steps/procedures on handling video evidence of law enforcement interaction with the public. Timelines, creating exceptions when video evidence will be released. I would expect some robust discussion based on what we’ve seen here recently.”
Here is a map of all 50 states and what kinds of bodycamera laws or rules they have.