The release of body-camera footage of Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols included calls for the public to calm down for fear that citizens might riot after seeing the violent footage.
Although there were some demonstrations and isolated incidents, there were no riots. But in Alabama, those fears have been used to stop the release of police body-camera footage altogether.
This is partly the case for 51-year-old Joseph Pettaway after he was attacked by a police dog in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018. Police were called to a possible burglary by someone who thought Pettway and his family had broken into a house they were actually repairing.
Montgomery police K9 handler Nicholas Barber sent a police dog to the home. It struck Pettway, tearing into his thigh and severing his femoral artery. Police escorted Pettaway out of the house to wait for an ambulance. He died at the hospital.
Pettaway’s family is suing several police officers (including Barber) and Montgomery in federal court for excessive force, wrongful death and failure to render medical aid. Also, the family is trying to release body camera footage of the incident to the public. Lawyers for the family have seen sealed copies of the footage but are barred from publicly releasing the footage in Alabama.
The city of Montgomery is fighting both the family and the press to stop the release of body camera footage. The city’s justification for its location is somewhat less than noble. Ashley Remkus, reporting for AL.com, explained:
In court records in 2020, Montgomery’s lawyers said that releasing the footage had the “potential to cause and/or facilitate civil unrest” and would expose the city and its officials to “annoyance, embarrassment, harassment and undue burden.”
In an order late last year denying the family’s latest request to release the footage, US Magistrate Judge Jerusha Adams cited the upcoming civil trial and the “graphic nature and emotional impact” of the footage.
Judge Adams wrote of the Montgomery video: “Because of its graphic nature and emotional impact, police body camera footage cannot be unseen, ignored or easily dismissed.”
State judges also have no support. In 2021, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that police body camera footage is exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, arguing that the videos are “investigative material” and, therefore, not public records. And therefore, no state law enforcement agency is under any obligation to release any body camera footage to the public.
Chief Justice Tom Parker was the lone dissenter, and he warned of potentially dire consequences if the majority’s decision was upheld:
With one sweeping stroke, today’s decision spells the end of public access to law-enforcement records that are connected in any way to the investigation. Hidden from the public eye are now body-cam videos, dashcam videos, 9-1-1 recordings and anything else remotely connected to a crime or even potential crime. After today, at least as far as law-enforcement agencies are concerned, the statute may also be known as the Closed Records Act.
Arguably, the riots did not happen after the release of Nichols’ footage because the public saw a city and prosecutors trying to hold the officers involved accountable. They have been fired and face criminal charges.
That’s the lesson to be learned here. Suppose body camera footage is so violent that law enforcement leaders and city officials fear its release will spark an uprising. In this case, it’s a nice indication that someone needs to be held responsible for what happened. In a bit of good news in this dire situation, last week, a federal judge denied immunity for Barber, ruling that he should have known the suspect had a chance to speak or surrender before sending a police dog to a home to confront him. Too much power.” The decision will allow the family case against him to proceed