By Glenn Wallace
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Colorado Springs Police Department plans to release body camera footage of any “significant event” such as an officer-involved shooting or death in custody, within 21 days of the incident.
“This is about us being transparent with our community and was largely started by the Transparency Matters report that was done last year,” said Lt. Pamela Castro, Colorado Springs police spokeswoman.
The department’s new policy standardizing the approach for the release of information regarding “critical incidents” is a specific recommendation of the 200-page Transparency Matters report on the department’s use of force, released in April.
This new policy, discussed in a January briefing, goes a step beyond what Colorado House Bill 21-1250 now requires of every state and municipal law enforcement agency in the state — to provide body camera footage within 21 days of a request. Even in the case of active ongoing investigations, law enforcement agencies are still to release video within 45 days.
Colorado Springs police say they will automatically release video footage of significant events, with no outside request required.
The city’s current Law Enforcement Transparency and Advisory Committee chairman D’Ontay Roy said he felt the policy change was a step in the right direction.
“I don’t know if it’s going to quell a lot of the tension, but it is a step forward,” he said.
Castro added that the new policy officially took effect Wednesday. She added that the policy was developed as a result of the Transparency Matters report, at the direction of Police Chief Adrian Vasquez who took office last year, as opposed to a reaction to any particular incident.
Department officials cautioned that there could be multiple reasons why video from some incidents are not made public in the 21-day time frame. In situations where there is an ongoing investigation, such as a police use of force during an arrest, there could be a delay in video release. Officials said specific legal proceedings, such as an impaneled grand jury or a court order from a judge, would also halt the release of any video.
Castro said that when there is a delay the department intends to give an explanation as to why video of a given incident is not released.
Other departments’ approaches
“We absolutely support transparency in law enforcement,” Lt. Deborah Mynatt with the El Paso Sheriff’s Office said regarding the policy. “We’re pretty much aligned.”
The Sheriff’s Office routinely investigates situations in which Colorado Springs police officers use force, and vice versa.
While Mynatt said the Sheriff’s Office was still discussing internally whether to copy the Colorado Springs policy entirely, she said the department was definitely working on internal procedures to ensure it would be compliant with state statutes.
Taylor Pendergrass, ACLU Colorado’s director of advocacy and strategic alliances, said that his office had not heard of other Colorado departments being as proactive and transparent with its bodycam footage policy, which he applauded.
The Parker Police Department earned praise from the ACLU for its then nation-leading bodycam use policies. Though that policy doesn’t specifically set a time period for the release of video footage, a spokesman with the department confirmed that it would comply with new state statutes.
The Denver Police Department includes a link to the state law on its records request page, though it, too, does not seem to have any sort of automatic bodycam footage release policy.
Castro said the department’s new policy was modeled after other agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance requiring L.A. police release relevant video of officer-involved shootings within 45 days of the shooting. The new policy also requires the release of video anytime an officer uses force that results in a suspect going to the hospital.
That policy came into play last month when Keenan Anderson, cousin of a Black Lives Matter co-founder, was involved in a auto crash. He was acting erratically after the crash and officers attempted to detain him, according to reports.
In the ensuing struggle, he was hit with a stun gun multiple times. He died hours later of a heart attack. Nine days after the arrest, the department released a video of the incident. In the video, a department spokesperson gives a brief introduction, followed by segments of different officers’ bodycam footage. Captions and context text were added to the video.
Colorado Springs police intend to add similar elements to its video releases.
“Our goal is to let the digital evidence such as 911 call, body-worn camera, and radio traffic speak for itself,” Castro said. ” LAPD does more narration than we plan to do but the loose framework is similar.”
“It’s expected and good to see departments in compliance with these laws,” Pendergrass said.
“It’s critical to see the law come into effect,” he added, saying that as incidents happen both the public and law enforcement agencies will adjust to not having the usual fights over if and when to release videos from police use of force incidents.
“Those fights will be a thing of a past, and I think that will be a good thing for law enforcement as well as the public,” he said.
The policy change, announced before the release of the graphic bodycam footage of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn., comes at a pivotal moment for Colorado Springs police. In the Transparency Matters report from last spring, a survey of the general public and police department employees found that both groups would like to see more transparency and fewer delays in the release of bodycam footage.
The Police Department has had its own incidents surrounding use of force and bodycam footage in recent years, including costing the city multiple cash settlements to marchers protesting police brutality in 2020 after they sued the city alleging unnecessary force in their arrests.
A year before that came the killing of De’Von Bailey, a 19-year-old who was shot in the back by Colorado Springs officers. CSPD initially rejected public calls for the release of the bodycam footage, but later reversed that decision and released video within two weeks of the incident.
That footage showed Bailey fleeing from police when he was shot and killed, but also confirmed that he possessed a gun, which officers said they were fearful he was reaching for when they opened fire. A grand jury would later decide not to press charges against the two officers in the case, though the city would settle a wrongful-death suit of nearly $3 million with Bailey’s family.
Roy points toward the Bailey case as an example of how, even when video evidence is swiftly provided, there can still be a significant difference of opinion about the outcome.
“It’s a tool that can help the public, and the police in policing,” said Roy, “but it isn’t always a solution.”
The Law Enforcement Transparency and Advisory Committee chair also said cases like the recent one of Dalvin Gadson Ochoa, where an Oct. 9 traffic stop led to a violent arrest, highlighted the possible benefits of releasing footage quickly. Gadson Ochoa’s lawyer received and released bodycam video of the arrest roughly eight weeks after the fact. Most charges against Gadson Ochoa were later dropped.
Roy said he would love to see an automatic video release each time police use force, not just after a “significant event,” though he says that’s likely an unrealistic use of resources.
“Still,” Roy asks, “would we have ever seen the Gadson video if he didn’t decide to sue?”
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