(Note: This story originally aired in May 2017)
Crimes are now caught on camera, but if you want to see what police see, you're out of luck.
Huntsville spent almost $1 million of your money to buy a body camera for every police officer. While the cameras may be on officers, your access to the video is off limits.
"There was no trust, there was fear....and I can't tell you there's trust now," Pastor T.C. Johnson told WAAY 31.
It's been almost two years since Johnson collected more than 2,400 signatures, all in support of his plea to equip every officer in Huntsville with a body camera.
Twenty-one months and $1 million later, Johnson isn't convinced the technology led to more transparency.
"The city controls the information, and whoever controls the information controls the outcome," Johnson said.
"In about the last 25 years, I think we've released 3 videos," Huntsville Police Lt. Stacy Bates told us.
Body cameras may be new, but the Huntsville Police Department started using dash cams more than 20 years ago. Lt. Bates claims the department doesn't restrict access to any of its footage, but we were only able to obtain copies of training video.
"It's not just us keeping our videos inside. If you've got a complaint against an officer, we're going to let you come up, and we're going to give you that opportunity to write a statement and watch that video," he said.
Bates couldn't tell us how many times that happened, but said the practice reduced the number of complaints filed against officers. He added taxpayers are seeing a return on their investment through fewer lawsuits.
But here's why he said we're not seeing the actual footage:
"At the end of the day, video doesn't tell the whole story. There's things that video doesn't show, and there's things that the audio on these cameras may not pick up, but the officer may hear," Bates said.
Fear the video will be misinterpreted, as wells as privacy concerns, are two of the reasons Bates listed for not releasing videos.
"We're not denying victims any right to video access...but it's just not good business to release things out to the general public, because we do have concerns," he said.
"They are denying victims, okay. Flat out," Attorney Hank Sherrod said in response to Bates' quote.
Sherrod represents the family of Will Hennessey, who was shot and killed by Huntsville Police in June of 2016. Hennessey's father wanted to see the body camera footage of his son's death.
"They made a man whose son had been shot and killed drive all the way from Iowa to Alabama. He had to wait months and months and months to be able to see a polished presentation designed to exonerate the police officer," Sherrod said.
Sherrod and the family requested a copy of the footage. They were denied.
I asked City Attorney Trey Riley why families can't have the footage.
"If you just gave the family footage, you know the concern is things like that can appear on social media or whatever. Once you release that footage, you lose control of the ability to convey the entirety of the circumstances," Riley responded.
Sherrod won' t accept that answer. Along with an attorney from Birmingham, he filed a complaint last month on behalf of the Hennessey family and the wife of Curtis Jordan, another man who died in an encounter with Huntsville Police.
Their request is simple: release copies of the body camera footage to the public.
"Alabama law says that the records of public activities are reasonably available to the public, and they're not reasonably available if they're only in a powerpoint presentation that you can't examine except under the supervision of an internal affairs officer," Sherrod said.
The WAAY 31 I-Team found out firsthand just how limited access is. We requested video of the Hennessey shooting and of another officer-involved shooting in 2016. The city attorney's office denied both requests.
"You have issues of sensitivity. Let's say in a death or something, sensitivity to the victim's family, sensitivity in police officer cases to the officers involved, for their personal safety, and also for their family," Riley explained.
Fight for Transparency
"I would say this is really about protecting them, not protecting anybody else," Sherrod said.
Pastor Johnson had even stronger words.
"I've found them to be deceptive, if not liars," he said.
That lack of trust is why Sherrod is fighting for HPD to reveal what's in its video vault.
"We think this issue is important in general for the work that we do, and for the public's right to hold law enforcement accountable," he said.
A return on a one million dollar investment many citizens would like to see.
- Not seen on camera: The police video vault
- I-Team: Huntsville police refuse to release body camera video
- Madison Police Department to get body worn cameras
- Court blocks release of New York police body camera footage
- WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: Huntsville city attorney unwilling to release body camera video
- New Traffic Cameras installed in Guntersville
- Police warn against sharing child porn video
- Chicago police release body camera footage of man killed by officers
- Mollie Tibbetts case mystified police until a security camera offered a key clue
- Not seen on camera: The law behind open records requests