The man’s voice is hoarse in the early hours of a cold January morning.
“Shoot me in the f------ head! Please. Shoot me!”
Steam escapes from his mouth each time he beckons an Ida County deputy sheriff to kill him. There is blood on his arms and legs as he paces the pavement in Ida Grove, wearing only yellow underwear and one sock.
“Please. … Please! … PLEASE!”
Shivering, he screams about his mom and that she killed herself and that someone is trying to take the family farm.
“The government doesn’t give a s---!”
The deputy, with his stun gun pointed at the man — who court records later revealed suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder — is able to calm and cuff him in about five minutes.
That scene was from a Jan. 1, 2020, police body camera video provided by the Ida County Sheriff’s Office after a public records request for the In Focus project. Iowa newspapers involved in the project are examining how police video is recorded in Iowa and whether the public has adequate access to it.
The Ida County video depicts a man embroiled in personal crisis, and none of it was edited or obscured. However, some law enforcement agencies have refused to release videos they say violate the privacy of the people shown, especially if the agencies lack the ability to redact or obscure images from the videos.
“I guess they’ve moved on now to their next set of excuses, which is: ‘Because we have to redact this we can’t give it to you’, ” said David O’Brien, a Cedar Rapids lawyer who has used police body camera videos for wrongful-death lawsuits that set important legal precedents for their public release.
After Drew Edwards, 22, of Maquoketa, died in June 2019 after being struck with a stun gun by police, Maquoketa police would not release the officer’s body camera video, saying it would be a violation of Edwards’ privacy rights — even though Edwards’ family wanted the video to be made public. That recording eventually was released in connection with a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against the police department settled last fall.
City of Chicago attorneys tried to block the release of a video of Chicago Police Department officers breaking into the wrong house in February 2019 and erroneously arresting a social worker who had just gotten home from work and was undressing. The video of the naked woman being handcuffed was made public only when the woman sued the city.
Public interest in police video is high after officer-involved shootings in locations across the county, including Iowa. A new citizens’ review board being formed in Cedar Rapids after the Black Lives Matter protests, for instance, will have access to police reports and evidence, including body camera footage, to review citizen complaints. That’s in keeping with the idea behind having officers wear body cameras in the first place: to monitor the use of the special authority the public gives police officers in enforcing the law.
But balancing that accountability with privacy also is important.
After some websites have posted police mug shots for online entertainment, law enforcement agencies may be worried body camera video could too easily end up on a website with no motive beyond profit.
“What if you are responding to a traumatized rape victim/survivor who does not want to be recorded?” University of Iowa Police Officer Alton Poole asked. “What if you are responding to someone in the privacy of their own home who does not want their medical condition revealed to the public?”
The In Focus project is in the process of evaluating the responses of more than 100 law enforcement agencies across Iowa to requests for video from body-worn police cameras or in-car dashboard cameras.
While the vast majority of agencies so far have complied with the routine requests, others cited privacy concerns for withholding parts or all of the recordings. Many rural agencies said they don’t have the ability to redact sensitive information and some said they were therefore unable to provide the recordings at all.
“I don’t think that gives them a right to keep from providing the whole video,” O’Brien said. “They just have to pixelate some of that out.”
The Iowa Attorney General has said records custodians should redact or “black out” confidential information and then provide public access to the rest of the record.
The police videos are produced by cameras purchased with public money at a considerable expense. The Des Moines Police Department, for example, spent about $1.6 million to equip its officers with body-worn cameras in 2017. Part of that money came from donations and federal grants.
The videos can be important evidence in criminal cases, but departments often cite increased accountability for officers when they seek to purchase the cameras.
“That’s what these are about, is transparency,” Sioux City Police Chief Rex Mueller said at a news conference last year after the city decided to spend more than $260,000 on body-worn cameras.
Despite a growing consensus bolstered by court rulings that the public has a right to view the video recordings, there still are police chiefs and sheriffs who claim to have unilateral authority over whether they should be released.
“We will not send info unless you are related to a criminal issue,” Rockwell City Police Chief Mike Anderson said in response to one of the In Focus records requests.
On the other hand, the Fayette Police Department, which has four officers in far northeast Iowa, hasn’t gotten many media requests for video but Chief Ben Davis didn’t have a problem copying the first police video of 2020 on a thumb drive and mailing it to a reporter.
“I pride myself on transparency as I always try to ensure we accommodate where I can within the realm of safety and investigation integrity,” Davis said.
The department also recently purchased pistol-mounted cameras “to ensure we have more than enough evidence for any incident that may come up,” Davis said. These cameras start recording when the gun is drawn.
Despite significant advances in law enforcement video technology, many agencies haven’t developed a system for distributing videos to the public, especially when they have privacy concerns. Some who were keen to provide the videos, but unable to redact sensitive information, got creative.
In Audubon County, which has about 5,600 residents in Western Iowa, the sheriff’s office offered an in-person view of the video while someone fast-forwarded past the private information.
“I realize that is not an ideal solution, but unfortunately, I don’t see any other viable alternatives,” said Chris Swensen, the Audubon County Attorney. That’s because Swensen was reluctant to provide video recordings of a traffic incident in which someone in an audio portion of the recording provided a driver’s license number and home address.
The sheriff’s office recently bought new body cameras and dash cameras for its seven patrol vehicles for more than $40,000. But in an effort to save money, the county didn’t purchase the technology that automatically downloads the videos and provides the software to edit them.
Just last month, the Cedar Rapids Police Department purchased a license to use Panasonic IDguard redaction software to edit video produced by body cameras or in-car cameras, spokesman Greg Buelow said. The agency of 213 sworn officers has been using body cameras since 2017.
The new software costs $2,400 a year.
“There are a number of factors that affect how long it takes to edit video, including number of cameras, number of subjects in a scene, amount of movement, length of the video footage, and positive identification of subjects,” he wrote in an email. “For example, we are prohibited from the disclosure of the identity of a juvenile if they are not being charged with a forcible felony, so the video would involve obscuring the identity (visual and sound) of the juvenile.”
Despite having this technology and being ready to use it, the Cedar Rapids department so far hasn’t had any requests for video that have needed redactions, Buelow said.
Video redaction doesn’t have to be costly.
FastRedaction.com offers a free trial of its artificial intelligence program that blurs faces when video is uploaded, reducing the time spent on redactions by 90 percent, according to its website. That site, used by law enforcement agencies, offers a pay-as-you-go format for $19 plus $1 per minute of recorded video. This means a 10-minute video would cost $29. Adobe Premiere Pro, a common but capable video-editing software, can be licensed for $21 a month.
What should be private?
“No. I’m not going to shoot you.”
The man in Western Iowa’s Ida Grove with the yellow shorts and one sock has a red laser dot on his body where a stun gun spike might strike him if the deputy sheriff pulls the trigger. The deputy hopes to avoid that.
“The sheriff’s department cares about you,” he tells the man in the street. “That’s why we’re here, buddy.”
The man has repeatedly pleaded for the deputy to shoot and kill him. He is allegedly drunk and has argued with a woman and broken some windows at a brewery. After about five tense minutes, the man relents and goes to jail. He later pleaded guilty to criminal mischief.
His arrest, documented in a video recording provided by the Ida County Sheriff’s Office, was not digitally obscured before it was disseminated, illustrating lack of guidance in state law about how law enforcement agencies should handle privacy concerns.
Several departments declined to release videos because they contained personally-identifiable or medical information or because they depicted juveniles or domestic situations inside a private residence.
The city of Clinton said it needed to redact video that showed the inside of a patrol vehicle because someone could use it to learn more about police equipment to hack it. The video Clinton later provided at a cost of $210 was heavily pixelated in parts to conceal a police officer’s computer, a driver’s license, vehicle registrations and the faces of the driver and a passenger in a traffic stop on a public road, in clear view of anyone passing by.
The redactions, however, were somewhat haphazard: The driver’s face and the officer’s computer screen are clearly visible at times.
Videos that other agencies provided showed driver’s licenses, children who were placed in temporary custody because their father was arrested, the full interior of a home that was being searched for drugs and, frequently, the insides of patrol vehicles.
The Greene County Sheriff’s Office provided a completely unredacted video of a drug search in Grand Junction, west of Ames. It is nearly two hours long and shows several people who live there, including a man in a silk bathrobe.
Greene County Sheriff Jack Williams said he had qualms about providing an unredacted video of the inside of someone’s home “but I just went with what the county attorney said to do.”
Are changes needed?
Iowa’s open records law, Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code, has 73 exceptions to openness. A handful of exceptions protect personal information, such as student or patient records, Social Security numbers, home phone numbers of state employees and addresses of people applying for housing assistance.
But the law doesn’t allow police to keep secret video just because it may be embarrassing to the person in the video.
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act allows government agencies to redact personal information “that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” unless the person consents. The law goes on to say this includes “information that is highly personal or objectionable to a reasonable person and in which the subject’s right to privacy outweighs any legitimate public interest. …”
The Illinois law does not allow agencies to conceal information “that bears on the public duties of public employees,” so any video of an officer-involved shooting or other police actions may not be protected by this provision.
Iowa has no law governing how body cameras should be used. A 2017 bill declared police video a public record, required agencies to keep the video for at least 30 days and asked officers to give people who aren’t being investigated for criminal acts the option of having the camera turned off, among other provisions. That bill failed to gain approval.
American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis argued in a September position paper Iowa’s outdated laws cause confusion and abuse.
“In order to be an effective oversight tool, adoption of body cameras must be accompanied by strong, clear policies to govern their use, data retention, and sharing,” Bettis said. “Thoughtful legislation is needed to balance accountability, transparency, and privacy.”
The ACLU, which advocates for personal privacy and police accountability, has said it’s appropriate to obscure or redact footage of people inadvertently shown on camera or people in their own homes who aren’t part of a police investigation.
However, “once someone is part of a public investigation, arrest or stop, that becomes a public record,” Policy Director Pete McRoberts said earlier this year.
The In Focus project is a collaboration of members of the Iowa Newspaper Association and includes reporting from more than 50 reporters from more than 30 Iowa newspapers. Readers who have experienced difficulty obtaining police video in Iowa can contact reporters at firstname.lastname@example.org. Public records requests and data storage/visualization for this project are supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.