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Anchorage Police Body Cams Spark Possible Transparency Test

Police in Anchorage, Alaska, began using body-worn cameras this year. Now, body cam video of a fatal officer-involved shooting could test a state position on releasing footage that could be evidence.

(TNS) — Anchorage police face mounting pressure to release body-worn camera video after officers shot and killed a man outside his West Anchorage apartment complex in mid-May.

But police chief designee Bianca Cross is citing a longstanding position taken by the state’s Office of Special Prosecutions as a driving factor in her decision to not release the video — even though she has the legal authority to release it now.

A spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law said that, for years, the agency has shared its position that law enforcement agencies should not release footage that could be considered evidence prior to the completion of a state review into whether a shooting was justified or if criminal charges should be filed.

The May 13 shooting, the first involving Anchorage officers wearing body cameras, is being seen as a test of the department’s transparency.

Four officers shot and killed 34-year-old Kristopher Handy outside a West Anchorage apartment complex. Security footage of the shooting captured from a nearby apartment that was widely circulated online has raised questions about the police’s account of the confrontation.

Last weekend, about 80 people marched to the Anchorage Police Department headquarters to protest the decision to not release body-camera footage. Handy’s family contends he had not “raised a long gun” at responding officers as police initially described. The surveillance video doesn’t clearly show whether he raised the gun.

Police department policy permits Cross to proactively release footage of such shootings, but she has repeatedly said she will not do so until after the Office of Special Prosecutions and APD internal investigations are complete, which could take months.

In a letter Friday to the Anchorage Assembly, Cross cited the law department’s “long-standing practice that evidence in a criminal investigation should not be released prior to the completion of the prosecutor’s review of the incident” as one of the reasons she was not releasing footage showing Handy’s shooting.

“I have heard the call for the release of the body-worn camera footage, but that footage is evidence,” Cross wrote. “Although I acknowledge that I have the discretion under APD policy to release footage before the conclusion of this investigation I must preserve the integrity of the investigation by refraining to do so at this time.”

Anchorage police began wearing cameras this year, more than two years after citizens voted to fund the technology through an annual property tax. The cameras are touted as a tool for law enforcement to increase transparency and improve public trust. But agencies across the country have routinely refused to release footage of police shootings in a timely manner, raising questions about public access.

In Anchorage, the Alaska Black Caucus pressured police to speed the deployment of body cameras.

Now Rich Curtner, co-chair of the group’s justice committee, said officials should prioritize completing an investigation within 10 days and releasing any footage of shootings within that timeframe.

“We advocated for body cams for a long time — well, this is exactly why,” he said. “And now it looks like that wasn’t enough.”

There’s no clear timeline for how long investigations into officer-involved shootings last or how long the investigation into the May 13 incident will take.

The Anchorage Police Department’s homicide unit gathers evidence, processes the crime scene and conducts interviews before passing the evidence to the Office of Special Prosecutions, Cross wrote in the letter to the Assembly. Once the state issues a decision, Anchorage police conduct an internal investigation to determine if involved officers violated policy or procedure.

The length of the state’s investigation “depends greatly on the complexity of the case, the amount of information to review, and whether we are waiting on additional testing or reports necessary for a comprehensive review (i.e., autopsy, DNA, ballistics, fingerprints) to be completed and received,” Department of Law spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said in an email.

Anchorage police said Handy’s case had been handed over to the Office of Special Prosecutions by Wednesday.

All shootings in Alaska have been deemed justified by prosecutors in recent years.

State public safety officials also have the authority to proactively release body-camera footage.

A fatal November shooting in Healy marked the first time Alaska State Troopers shot and killed someone while wearing cameras. Troopers have not released footage of the shooting that killed 45-year-old Michael Grimes, citing a Department of Law request as the main factor.

“While the decision to release body-worn camera video rests with our agency, we certainly take into consideration the requests of the Office of Special Prosecutions who will ultimately determine whether or not to criminally charge a law enforcement officer that uses deadly force,"” spokesman Austin McDaniel said in an email.

The Office of Special Prosecutions investigation into the Healy shooting is ongoing. Sullivan said last week that prosecutors are awaiting a ballistics report in the case.

The state’s position on evidence release “has been repeatedly communicated to APD and other law enforcement agencies across the state for many years,” Sullivan said. The practice ensures compliance with the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct, ethics rules for lawyers that limit information that can be publicly provided before trials take place, she said.

The Department of Law’s position ensures jurors aren’t exposed to information about a criminal case outside the courtroom, potentially jeopardizing a conviction, Sullivan said. It also aligns with ethics rules for lawyers which limit information that can be publicly provided before a trial, she said.

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