On Thanksgiving night, 21-year-old Emantic (“E.J.”) Bradford Jr. lost his life to a police bulletwhile trying to direct shoppers away from gunfire at Alabama's Riverchase Galleria in Hoover, the state's largest indoor mall. The young man was a hero, but he was also a black guy with a gun.
Here, the NRA mantra of “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” failed someone because of their skin color. Bradford, who was black and a licensed gun owner, had his hand on his weapon while directing people to safety. A police officer working mall security shot him, apparently thinking he was the suspect.
The killing made national news, but because Alabama has no laws regarding the public release of police body camera footage, no official footage of the scene is available. Bradford's parents are demanding the release of both the body camera footage and those of surveillance cameras at the mall, but the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) refuses to do while the investigation is ongoing.
Other Alabama Cases
While Bradford's killing attained notoriety, three similar cases in recent years followed similar scenarios when it comes to the release of police body cam footage. In April 2018 in Huntsville, police officer William Darby, 25, shot and killed Jeffrey Louis Parker, 49, during a mental health call.
Parker called 911 and said he had a gun and was suicidal. Parker didn't drop his gun when told to by police, and Darby shot him. While the city's police review board cleared Darby, a grand jury indicted Darby on a murder charge in August. His trial is set for April 2019. Huntsville officials refuse to release the body camera footage.
Just before Christmas in Troy in 2017, police officers “subdued” a teen they alleged was reaching into his waistband, and the youth was badly injured. The NAACP wanted footage of the incident released, but again the SBI would not release it while they investigated.
In 2016, high school students in Mobile were pepper sprayed by a police officer while they were painting a cannon in midtown's Loop. City officials apologized but would not release the body camera footage. In August 2018, a judge ruled for releasing the footage. However, this ruling does not provide guidance for other state courts grappling with the same issue.
Open Records Law
Alabama may address this issue in the coming year in a review of its open records law, originally drafted long before the advent of police body cameras. While the primary purposes of police wearing body cameras is to increase government accountability and transparency, there are many examples of law enforcement hiding behind an investigatory exemption to avoid releasing such footage.
There is a balancing act involved between an investigation and the public's right to know what happened. In most states, police are given some discretion regarding the release of body camera footage, but it almost always involves preserving an investigation. There's also the question of innocent bystanders captured on the footage, whose identities require redaction.
A compromise may involve “timely” release, which in much of the country consists of releasing footage within a week after the incident and its entirety, rather than snippets. New Hampshire passed a law in 2017 prohibiting any sort of tampering with video footage involving deadly force by authorities for three years, and this law is considered a model by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations.
However, that law does not require public access per se, but does mandate that any persons in the footage, their attorneys, spouse, or the parents or guardians of a minor may view it.
The Southern Strategy
Several other southern states – Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina – have laws excluding body camera footage from open records requests. Although, in fairness, a couple of northern states have similar statutes.
In each state, however, there are exceptions. For instance, Georgia allows those involved in a pending criminal or civil trial to view the footage. In Alabama, politicians on both sides of the aisle want guidelines for their state, as well. Meanwhile, Hoover city officials have gone a step further. They have asked the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which took over the investigation from the SBI, to release the footage of Bradford's shooting.