As viral videos bring unprecedented scrutiny to police use of force, critics say authorities sometimes abuse laws to deny and delay the release of police records, reports the Washington Post. Many state laws create broad exemptions allowing police to keep records secret. Officials often cite “ongoing investigations” without explaining why releasing a dashboard-camera video or documents would cause harm. In some cases, including the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester, laws are used against the wishes of a family that wants records made public. Two months after Prude’s family tried to obtain police body-camera footage showing Prude naked, handcuffed and hooded on a street, protests against police violence were gaining momentum, and officials didn’t want the video made public.
The video was given to Prude’s family after a months-long legal battle and made public, prompting outrage and costing the police chief his job. Police and municipal officials say they follow long-standing rules to guard people’s rights and the integrity of investigations and court cases. The information officials release about shootings by officers, deaths in custody and other uses of force can vary widely from state to state and agency to agency. The patchwork of rules governing the nation’s 18,000 police departments favors secrecy, said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “State law and local law and rules have been designed to shield police from accountability,” he said. “The assumption within law enforcement has been: Citizens don’t need to know this, they won’t understand it, and we’re not under any obligation to share it.” Police sometimes use controversial interpretations to justify withholding records, prompting accusations they are misusing laws created for other purposes. A Florida police union sued Tallahassee to prevent releasing identities of two officers involved in fatal shootings, arguing they “were victims of separate, aggravated assaults.”