Asked and Answered: When police video is allowed to be released

Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 5:38 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A big topic of discussion this week is access to police body camera and dash camera footage.

Two families in Savannah with very different encounters with police are asking for the release of the videos.

That includes the family of Maurice Mincey. A passenger who was shot and killed by police on July 17 during a traffic stop. The GBI says he refused to comply with commands and got out of the car while holding a gun.

And another family, the family of Stephen Milton, who was a pedestrian hit and killed during a police chase involving Georgia State Patrol. GSP has said the driver they were chasing hit Milton at 38th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

A first amendment attorney says it’s up to the police agency that took the footage to decide whether to release it. And under the Georgia Open Records Act, there are two reasons an agency can choose to withhold the records.

More police agencies are equipping their officers with video technology: body worn cameras, patrol car dash cameras and even body worn microphones that record an officer’s interaction.

But the public’s ability to watch the video and listen to the recordings largely depends on whether there is a pending investigation and how the police agency interprets the law.

“It is ultimately up to the police department to make that determination as to whether they are exempt and if they believe they are exempt whether they choose to withhold them or not,” Ian Byrnside said.

Byrnside is a first amendment attorney in Georgia. He says Georgia is a state that strongly favors access to government records to encourage public transparency. Much of that access falls under the Georgia Open Records Act.

When it comes to certain police records, including body camera footage, police agencies often cite an exemption that lets them withhold it if it’s part of a pending case.

Byrnside says there are ways the agency can be transparent with the public and also protect the integrity of the investigation.

“There’s ways you can do it. You can redact information. You can blur information, faces and video, things of that nature. But they could do that if that’s something they want to do to be able to give the public some of the information but still protect their investigation,” Byrnside said.

WTOC has requested the body camera and dash camera footage for both cases from the police agencies involved. The Georgia State Patrol denied the request under the exemption for pending prosecution and said the decision was up to the DA.

Savannah Police denied the body camera footage under the exemption of a pending investigation.

WTOC asked Savannah Mayor Van Johnson about recent comments he’s made on Facebook. In a public post, the mayor said the body camera video cannot be released under Georgia law. We asked him if he wanted to clarify that statement.

“I think that the GBI and other law enforcement agencies have chosen not to be able to do that. Again, the law protects them in that case. That’s totally up to them. I do know, and the chief can articulate this verbally, that once a case is turned over to someone else, another agency meaning GBI or the DA’s office I think it’s counterproductive to then release something that is being investigated by someone else,” Mayor Johnson said.

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