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Not seen on camera: The law behind open records requests

Crimes are now caught on camera, but if you want to see what police see, you're out of luck.

Posted: Nov. 7, 2017 2:01 PM

(Note: This story originally aired in May 2017)
WAAY 31 is fighting for you and asking why it's so difficult to get records the public should be able to see.

Our initial investigation focused on access to police body camera footage. All our requests to see video were denied.

"The city seems to be really concerned that the videos might get out in the public," Attorney Hank Sherrod said.

Like the WAAY 31 I-Team, Sherrod wanted a copy of the body camera footage captured the morning of June 18, 2016. That's when Huntsville Police shot and killed Will Hennessey.

"You know I thought that was the point of open records laws," Sherrod said of his request.

So did we. But, as was the case with Sherrod, the city denied us copies of the footage. City Attorney Trey Riley says he offers counsel, but the chief of police makes the final decisions on these requests.

"It's kind of an evolving field of law, and it's an ever-changing thing for us and probably why we approach each of these requests on an individual basis," Riley explained.

Here's what the Alabama Open Records Act says:

"Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute."

The Alabama Supreme Court extended the definition of public writing to cover video recordings as well.

The city attorney's office told us video of the Hennessey incident would not be released due to privacy concerns, safety of the officers involved and out of respect for the families of the deceased.

So the WAAY 31 I-Team asked for a different video: footage of District 1 Councilman Devyn Keith from his encounter with Huntsville Police earlier this month. Keith was mistaken for a suspected robber and briefly detained by police. No one was hurt, and it all happened outside, in the councilman's front yard.

I submitted a request for the video on February 15th.

"A decision to my understanding has not yet been made on that, but again, that was an incident that involves not only the police department, but also Councilman Keith as well, and so there will be consideration of the interests of all parties involved in that affair," Riley responded.

Here's the catch: Alabama state law allows the government to ignore any and all open record requests. There's no requirement that forces a public agency to respond.

"In most cases, people won't take any legal action, so just by stonewalling, the city will win," Sherrod said.

A 2008 study from the Better Government Association ranked Alabama 48th in the country in terms of transparency.

Starting today, WAAY 31 is taking action. The I-Team is going to lawmakers in Montgomery, asking why it's so hard for you to access information people in every other state can get.

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