The video is disturbing: A police officer is seen striking an unarmed suspect with his handgun as the man falls into the grass. An autopsy would later show he died from a gunshot to the back of the head. After the death last July of 26-year-old Daniel Fuller in Devils Lake, N.D., investigators described the video to his grieving relatives, but for months, they refused to release it to the family or the public. They did so only after a prosecutor announced in November that the officer did not intend to fire his gun and would not face criminal charges, reports the Associated Press. An AP investigation found that police departments routinely withhold video taken by body-worn and dashboard-mounted cameras that show officer-involved shootings and other uses of force. They cite a broad exemption to state open records laws, claiming that releasing a video would harm an ongoing investigation.
During the last five years, taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to outfit officers’ uniforms and vehicles with cameras and to store the footage they record as evidence. Body cameras have been touted as a way to increase police transparency by allowing for a neutral view of whether an officer’s actions were justified. Yet videos can be withheld for months, years or even indefinitely. Some departments voluntarily release videos of high-profile incidents, sometimes within days or weeks. Many routinely release videos that show officers in a positive light, rescuing people from accidents and fires. How requests are handled varies widely. The AP tested the public’s ability to access police video for Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government, by filing open records requests related to 20 recent use-of-force incidents in a dozen states. They failed to unearth video of a single incident that had not already been released.