Citizens deserve police video access even if people like Tyre Nichols don't die | Opinion

If the video footage from the Tyre Nichols beating in Memphis tells us anything, it’s that we need to keep protecting the tools that allow public accountability for corruption.

Two bills in the Legislature last year sought to reduce a citizen’s ability to view body cam or other law enforcement video footage.

One passed and one didn’t.

The intentions were not necessarily bad — trying to protect privacy of individuals or children captured on body cam footage and trying to help law enforcement manage the overwhelming amount of footage being produced now that body cams are affixed to the chest or shoulder of many officers.

But we shouldn’t block citizen access to law enforcement video of a police officer’s excessive use of force simply because the video shows the inside of a daycare center or a health care facility or a juvenile in a school, as the bill that passed allows.

We also don’t need to destroy video on a 30-day schedule when police decide there was no crime and before anyone else realizes there was potential misconduct or a crime, which the other bill proposed. That bill, thankfully, failed.

Without the Tyre Nichols video — and particularly the video from the street camera affixed on a nearby pole — the public and even the good cops might be lulled into believing a concocted story about a traffic stop that does not truly reflect what happened.

More:After Tyre Nichols’ murder, Memphis must unify as one community | Opinion

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Footage showed abuses of authority

Footage from body cameras is not perfect. It can be shaky and obstructed. Sometimes it has gaps because it wasn’t turned on the whole time. It doesn’t always answer the relevant questions.

RowVaughn Wells, center, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, is comforted by his stepfather Rodney Wells, at the conclusion of a candlelight vigil for Tyre, in Memphis, Tenn., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
RowVaughn Wells, center, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, is comforted by his stepfather Rodney Wells, at the conclusion of a candlelight vigil for Tyre, in Memphis, Tenn., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

But it should not be covered up. And we should be fixing our laws that allow loopholes to accountability, not expanding them.

The video of Nichols helps us see why.

The New York Times analyzed and synchronized the four segments of video footage released by the City of Memphis and counted 71 commands in a 13-minute period. The Times noted that the commands were sometimes contradictory and issued while police were simultaneously “constraining, controlling and beating Mr. Nichols in ways that render it physically impossible for him to follow those commands.”

For example, The New York Times reported that the video showed officers repeatedly yelling at Mr. Nichols to give them his hands, even as others were holding his hands. When he did not comply, Nichols is struck with a baton and the shouting continues. “Give me your (expletive) hands!” But there was no way Nichols, with one officer pinning his arms behind his back and another gripping his handcuffed wrist and a third punching his face, could comply, the Times observed.

Other shocking footage shows Memphis Fire Department medical personnel showing up at the scene and for several minutes not performing even most basic initial medical checks on Nichols as he lay propped up against a car, sometimes falling over, only to be propped up again.

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Did the cops involved care that they were being recorded?

One nagging question we must ask: If the police officers knew their body cameras were recording, why would they engage in such conduct?

It’s possible those officers and others involved didn’t know the pole camera above them was recording from a better angle. It’s possible they knew the limits of their own body cameras to capture conclusive views. It’s possible they intentionally yelled commands that they knew would be recorded clearly even if their actions were not.

Or it’s possible they just didn’t care.

In June 2021, longtime Memphis journalist Marc Perrusquia reported how difficult it is to get body camera footage from the Memphis Police Department in cases involving questions of excessive use of  force.

His report, “Inaccessible: Police body camera footage is often expensive, heavily edited and takes months to get” documented how journalists had to wait up to eight months for access to footage and were asked to pay exorbitant amounts to get copies — $3,100 for video from a single case, for example.

Even then, redactions often obscured the actions of officers and sometimes were unexplained.

Perrusquia gave examples, including one heavily redacted video that showed a Memphis police officer appearing to slide his arm around the neck of a juvenile he was trying to arrest. The images were blurry, supposedly to protect the juvenile’s identity, but did it also protect the clarity of what the officer did to that juvenile? Was it a chokehold?

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Citizens deserve to know the truth

Here, Memphis released video showing a beating by officers that led to Tyre Nichols’ death.

Deborah Fisher
Deborah Fisher

But it’s time to address when citizens are blocked from seeing video footage even when police actions don’t lead to death. Because isn’t that the way we know we’ve got a problem before someone dies?

When the exemption for certain body camera footage was being expanded last year, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government called on updating it. The flaw, we said at the time, is the exemption is based on where the video is taken rather than what the body camera footage depicts, particularly the actions of law enforcement. No pathway exists for citizens to get around that confidentiality.

As we head into another legislative session, we need to slow down on the efforts to add more roadblocks to law enforcement records and instead focus on ways to restore some of what we’ve already lost.

Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, an organization that has monitored and researched open government in Tennessee since 2003.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tyre Nichols: Stop blocking police footage even if people don't die