HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - In incidents like the police shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, video and information take on a lot of importance. WHNT News 19 has promised to continue the community conversation on the difficult subjects surrounding policing. Today, we spoke with Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray on the department's policies regarding video and other information in the wake of use-of-force incidents.
When the issue of police violence, especially against black people, became a national debate, body cameras became a flash point for activists, looking to hold police accountable.
McMurray says he believes video helps cops, especially when their actions are questioned, "98% of the complaints filed on the Huntsville Police officers are cleared by body-worn cameras and in-car video and audio film footage."
He tells us people can come to internal affairs and review footage if they have a complaint about an interaction, but he adds, "As far as releasing that video to them, that's a little bit more in-depth. That's a few extra steps."
He says release requires an open records request that has to get approved, "It has to be reviewed through the chief of police in counsel with the city legal department. We look at it together."
There are two big concerns regarding the footage bodycams capture. One is privacy. Videos may show juveniles. They may show nudity. They may go inside a person's residence.
"We had a right to go in there under color of law," McMurray notes. "But do we have a right to share anything we see publicly? Not so much."
The other concern is also legal: the video's role in pending criminal or civil matters.
That's not just about when police actions are in question. Take a situation last December, where a man was accused of attacking an officer at a downtown bus station, and it was caught on surveillance video that Chief McMurray declined to release.
"If we went public with this," McMurray says, "His defense would be, 'You've already prejudiced the jury. We can't find a jury pool here who hasn't already seen this on all the news stations, because, Chief McMurray, you released this video. And you showed your officer getting beat up by him.'"
McMurray says Huntsville Police are working on bodycam video policies, but each situation deserves its own review.
Police in Huntsville also rarely offer the names of officers involved in use-of-force incidents, even though we often see that information released by other departments.
For example, we don't know officer names in either of the last two deadly Huntsville Police shootings this summer.
McMurray tells us, "I can't think of any reason that the name of an officer would be part of a story or be relevant to what happened as far as the use-of-force."
Advocates say the accountability helps, but the chief says it jumps the order of operations, "We've chosen not to, because he certainly has a right to due process as well. He has a due process to be prosecuted for what he did."
But even after a shooting review board cleared the officer who killed a man on Jordan Lane, HPD did not offer that officer's name.
"I have no problem to release his name afterwards," McMurray notes. "But it just causes undue pressure on him and his family to actually make public record of 'This is the officer.' Isn't that the officer that I used to go to church with? Isn't that the officer who my kids play with his kids? That kind of stuff. I don't see the purpose of that. I don't see the relevancy of publicizing an officer who has been cleared of any wrongdoing."
"Why are we going public with his name?" McMurray asks.
"I'm just not there yet."