Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle says police body cam footage doesn’t tell whole story

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The recent murder indictment of a Huntsville police officer, William Darby, came after a Madison County grand jury reviewed the body camera footage from the April on-duty incident.

The public hasn’t seen the video, and the City of Huntsville has refused requests to release it.

WHNT News 19 recently spoke with Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle about the city’s body camera policy.

Battle said the city’s lawyers have stressed that judges want juries to see all the evidence, not portions of it, in the media. So, no release if the case is going to court.

The mayor said the body cameras' usage came after the city decided police car dashboard cameras didn’t provide enough detail.

“Body cams are to tell the story, of what is happening on the streets,” Battle said.

So, a picture is worth a thousand words?

"But they don't tell the whole story," Battle said.

He said understanding what happened in any given police incident also requires interviews with people involved in the incident and the officer involved.

Battle said while the public’s access to the body cam footage may be limited, the Huntsville Police Department uses it for internal reviews and possible discipline.

But advocates say the body cam footage should be released on a regular basis to ensure public confidence.

The Montgomery-based nonprofit Alabama Appleseed, which focuses on justice initiatives, says body cam footage in cases that involve use of force, particularly deadly force, should be released.

“It should be made public regardless, and the public should be able to figure out what happened based on the videotape,” said Frank Knaack, the group’s executive director. “So it shouldn’t come down to whether the officer didn’t do the right thing, or did do the right thing.

“It should just be the basic principle that if there is a use of force, deadly force, that information is made public immediately.”

Battle says under the city’s policy, the release of body cam footage must be approved by the police chief, city attorney and mayor’s office. We asked what the decision is based on.  The mayor stressed that legal claims can be tied to such footage.

Battle said the reviews are based on what the city attorney determines is necessary for Huntsville.

“Is it going to be in a future case? Is it going to be used in a future court case? Does it have the possibility of being used in a future court case?”

Dennis Bailey, the attorney for the Alabama Press Association, said state open records law hasn’t been updated to address body cam footage. Bailey said it doesn’t bar the release of footage, or order it. But he contends public releases should be consistent.

“The decision to release body cam footage should not be based on whether it helps or hurts either side,” he said. “It’s either a public record when it shows good things and it’s a public record when it shows bad things.

The issue in Alabama may have been given some clarity last week, or maybe not.

On Aug. 13, a judge in Mobile ordered the release of police body cam footage in a pepper-spraying case, following a lawsuit. But the judge also said he wasn’t setting a precedent and that each case had to be evaluated individually. Read the decision here.

WHNT News 19 asked Battle if body cam footage would be made available after any related court cases were finished. He said the city would still have to conduct a review to assess whether it could be used in any future cases.