In Utah, police body cam footage is public record for a reason

Wednesday , October 11, 2017 - 4:30 AM2 comments


By now you’ve probably seen the video.

Salt Lake City Police Detective Jeff Payne tells Alex Wubbels, a nurse at University Hospital, he needs a blood sample from an unconscious patient.

Wubbels explains that either the patient needs to provide consent or Payne needs to obtain a warrant.

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Moments later, Payne arrests Wubbels, roughly handcuffs her and drags the screaming nurse to a patrol car, where Lt. James Tracy berates her for not giving them the patient’s blood.

Wubbels was right and the police were wrong. They released her without filing charges.

Tuesday, more than two months after Wubbels’ arrest, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown fired Payne and demoted Tracy for violating department policy.

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Police body cam footage is a public record. And this is why — because it helped the public hold the Salt Lake City PD accountable for the actions of its officers.

Wubbels requested the video after her July 26 arrest. Utah law says that with few exceptions, police body cam footage should immediately be made public.

Wubbles and her attorney released the video in late August. Brown quickly placed Payne and Tracy on administrative leave and launched an internal investigation. He also apologized to Wubbels for her arrest, as did Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

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Biskupski said she hadn’t seen the footage  until Wubbles released it. Brown said it was the first time he’d seen it in its entirety.

But the Salt Lake Police Association said the video shouldn’t have been made public.

“The premature release of body cam footage is particularly demoralizing as it allows the public who have not trained as police officers to make what often amounts to biased and ill-informed judgments of the police,” association president Stephen Hartney said in a letter to Biskupski and Brown.

Often? Not in this case, as police investigators concluded.

Prosecutors launched a criminal investigation of Payne and Tracy. They also asked the FBI to review the case for possible civil rights violations.

Public outrage over police body cam video cannot compel investigators to reach a predetermined conclusion. It can force police departments, prosecutors and mayors to call for investigations, however.

In this case, investigators found Payne and Tracy violated department policy when they arrested Wubbels — which allowed Brown to act decisively on behalf of the public.

Utah’s open records law worked.

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