Alabama avoids police transparency, hides violent body shots

The release of body camera footage of Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols included public calls to calm fears that citizens might riot after seeing the violent footage.

Although there were protests and isolated incidents, there were no riots. But in Alabama, those fears have been used to stop the public release of police body camera footage altogether.

That’s partly what happened in the case of Joseph Pettaway, 51, who was left bruised and bleeding after a 2018 attack by a police dog in Montgomery, Alabama. Police were alerted to the possible break-in by someone who thought Pettaway and his family had broken into a house they were actually renovating.

Montgomery police K9 handler Nicholas Barber sent a police dog to the home. He attacked Pettaway, slashing his thigh and tearing his femoral artery. Police pulled Pettaway from the home to wait for 911. He died in the hospital.

Pettaway’s family is suing several officers (including Barber) and Montgomery in federal court for excessive force, wrongful death and failure to render medical aid. Furthermore, the family is trying to release footage of the incident from the body camera. The family’s attorneys have seen sealed copies of the tape, but are prohibited in Alabama from publicly releasing the tape.

The city of Montgomery fought with the family and the press to stop the release of the body camera footage. The city’s justification for its position is a little less than noble. Ashley Remkus, reporting for, explains:

In 2020 court filings, Montgomery’s attorneys said the release of the footage had “the potential to create and/or facilitate civil unrest” and would subject the city and its officials to “nuisance, embarrassment, oppression and undue burden.”

In a ruling issued late last year denying the family’s latest request to release the footage, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerusha Adams cited the upcoming civil trial and the “graphic nature and emotional impact” of the footage.

Judge Adams wrote of the Montgomery video: “Because of its graphic nature and emotional impact, police body camera footage cannot be overlooked, ignored or easily set aside.”

State judges are no help either. In 2021, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that police body camera footage was exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, arguing that the videos were “investigative material” and therefore not public records. And so, no law enforcement agency in the state has any obligation to release any body camera footage to the public.

Chief Justice Tom Parker was the only dissenter who warned of possible dire consequences if the logic of the majority decision was followed:

In one fell swoop, today’s decision marks the end of public access to law enforcement records related in any way to the investigation. Now hidden from the public eye are body camera videos, dash cam videos, 9-1-1 recordings, and anything else remotely related to a crime or even a potential crime. After today, at least as far as law enforcement agencies are concerned, the statute might as well be called the Closed Records Act.

Arguably, the reason the riots didn’t happen after the Nichols tape was released was because the public could see the city and prosecutors trying to hold the officers involved accountable. They were fired and are facing criminal charges.

That’s the lesson to be learned here. Suppose the body camera footage is so violent that law enforcement and city officials fear its release will spark a riot. In that case, that’s a pretty good indication that someone should be held accountable for what happened. Some good news in this dire situation is that last week a federal judge denied Barber immunity, finding that he should have known that sending a police dog into a home to confront a suspect before giving him a chance to speak or surrender constituted “excessive force.” .” This decision will allow the family’s lawsuit against him to continue

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