In 2018, Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters asked the City Council for body cameras for his officers. The chief cited several reasons for purchasing the cameras, most notably that the footage could help the community understand the circumstances surrounding an officer’s decision.
Moreover, the chief said, citizens with concerns about an encounter with an officer would be able to come to the station and view the footage.
“It protects the citizens and it protects the police,” he said.
The chief was right. Body cameras provide accountability, both for police and for the people who accuse officers of wrongdoing. That’s why we’re distressed by the Casper Police Department’s decision to withhold footage recorded by Officer Michael Quirin’s body camera early on the morning of Jan. 5.
In a legal claim filed against the city, Quirin is accused of slamming Adrianah Rodriguez, a 110-pound unarmed black woman, to the ground multiple times. Her claim further alleges that Quirin pinned her to the floor while she was handcuffed, placing his entire body weight on her back and wedging his knee into her neck.
Quirin had responded to a noise complaint at a party that smelled of marijuana. He told the partygoers that he wanted to see their IDs. According to Rodriquez’s attorney, the officer “flew into a rage” after she told him that she knew her rights and suggested he calm down. Police say Rodriguez pulled her identification away from him amid a chaotic situation involving other partygoers who acted aggressively.
So what really happened? Right now, we have the word of several witnesses and a police report. We also have a police department statement indicating Quirin was suspended without pay after an investigation. And we know prosecutors threw out the case against Rodriguez days later.
But we don’t have to take anyone’s word for what happened that morning. We know that two officers were on scene at the time that Rodriguez was arrested. We know they were equipped with body cameras. So where is the footage?
The police have it. And when the Star-Tribune first sought that footage this spring, the department said it was unable to fulfill this newspaper’s request due to state law. Except that’s not true.
The Wyoming Legislature in 2017 updated public records law to allow body camera footage to be released in certain circumstances. But there’s a catch. The law leaves that decision in the hands of the law enforcement agencies whose officers produced the footage.
That was a mistake, and one with a predictable outcome. Police are inclined to release footage when it shows them in a positive light. They are inclined to deny access when the footage might depict officers’ actions negatively.
This flaw in the system must be addressed. In light of the ongoing debate about police use of force and accountability, lawmakers should require body camera footage to be released after officer complaints. As the chief himself said, it protects both parties by offering a neutral depiction of what occurred.
But the Legislature’s mistake doesn’t absolve the police in Casper of the responsibility to do the right thing now. There is nothing stopping them from releasing the footage.
Police know that. Earlier this month, the department changed its story. Officials no longer argued that the law left them unable to release the footage. Instead, they claimed that releasing it was too much work. Specifically, they said that the department didn’t have the resources to protect the identities of the members of the public who were filmed by blurring them out in the footage.
To be blunt, we don’t buy this explanation. First, the department has released dozens of slickly produced videos in the past few years. It apparently has the resources to make a video with drone footage of its patrol cars arranged in a heart shape. It has the resources to record its officers eating spicy peppers. And it has the resources to produce an elaborate lip sync video featuring more drone footage, multiple locations, costumes, dozens of extras, dozens of uniformed officers, cameos from other agencies and a fake newscast. Clearly, the department has the resources to blur some faces if necessary.
Moreover, the people in the arrest video are the ones who sought out publicity. They want their story told. It’s hard to take the department at its word that its concern here is truly about the privacy rights of the citizens who have accused one of its officers of excessive force.
The department also has a history of releasing body camera footage – when it feels its officers acted appropriately. It’s quickly made available videos of police shootings. It quickly publicized footage when a drunk driver struck an occupied police vehicle.
And, to be clear, there is nothing in state law that prevents police from sharing the video with the public. The subsection that a police spokeswoman cited in her denial of the Star-Tribune’s request states body camera footage can be released in response to a complaint about law enforcement personnel when it’s not contrary to the public interest.
In this instance, Rodriguez did make a complaint – and one that prompted disciplinary action against the officer. And clearly, there is a public interest in understanding when and how police here use force against the citizens they are sworn to protect.
So why the denial?
If Rodriguez and the witnesses who spoke to the Star-Tribune are telling the truth, footage of a white officer with his knee on the neck of a black woman would be troubling to most people, especially during a time when police officers across the country are under intense scrutiny. But we are amid a national conversation about police use of force. The footage is of vital public interest during this conversation.
And, according to the chief’s own argument for buying body cameras, the footage helps a community understand an officer’s decision.