An unarmed Black man is brutally murdered by police, who are utterly indifferent to his repeated pleas for restraint. First the people in that city, then across the nation (and, eventually, across the globe) take to the streets. They demand justice. They demand accountability. And they call upon the police, not only in that city but across the nation, to reform their practices, to eliminate racial profiling and overly aggressive militaristic responses, and to become more transparent — including by publicly releasing body-worn camera recordings of police-public confrontations.
COVID-19 touched nearly every aspect of our lives in 2020 so of course it affected government transparency and public access to courts in Colorado.
A split screen might be the best way to think about government transparency in Colorado in 2019. On one side is the ground-breaking new state law that opens records on completed police internal affairs investigations. On the other is the trend among law enforcement agencies in our state to encrypt 100 percent of their scanner transmissions.
Footage from police body-worn cameras clearly fits the definition of criminal justice records in one of Colorado’s freedom-of-information laws: All materials, including recordings, “made, maintained, or kept” by criminal justice agencies. But some district attorneys are relying on more than the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act to determine whether and when body camera video should be disclosed to the public.
The mother of a 19-year-old man who was killed during a confrontation with police last year is on a mission to make law enforcement body camera footage more available to the public under Colorado law.
Congress and state legislatures that provide public funds to police departments to deploy body-worn cameras should attach strings to that purse and mandate that there be a strong presumption of public access to such recordings, with only narrow, carefully defined exceptions.
The final report of a state task force on police body cameras does not recommend when or under what circumstances captured video should be released to the public.