How the Melissa Click case highlights tensions around police body-cam footage

Photo: AP

It was two snippets of video that ended up costing Melissa Click her job last week.

Click shot from obscurity to infamy in November when, while employed as an assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri in Columbia, she was caught on tape calling for “some muscle” to remove a student videographer from a public space during a campus protest.

When the university’s Board of Curators voted to fire Click on Feb. 25, that episode was listed as part of the reason—but only part.

The board also cited Click’s actions at an October homecoming demonstration that was a pivotal moment in the campus protests, when she cursed at a police officer as he moved protesters off of a street. That, too, was captured on video.

Both videos came to light via the work of student journalists, but the second came from an unusual source: a police body camera. The footage was obtained from the Columbia police department through an open-records request by the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper staffed by students but managed by professionals and faculty.*

These body-cams have come into increasingly widespread use in recent years, as civil-rights activists and law enforcement alike turn to them for a record of the truth in controversial police incidents.

But the proliferation of police video has prompted new questions about who gets to see it—and with the rules about retention and release of the footage very much up for debate, the Missouri case highlights the challenges in striking a balance between police accountability, government transparency, and personal privacy. It shows, too, how efforts to resolve that tension can divide advocates for open government and civil liberties, who often find themselves on the same side of debates involving police.

The video of the encounter at the homecoming parade “is not what body cameras are supposed to be used for,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the use of cameras but favors limits on the release of footage. While Click “very rightly was criticized” for her actions in the video captured by a student journalist, Stanley said, the release of the body-cam video “has the feel of surveillance being used for piling on.”

His comments echo those of The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote that the body-cam footage demonstrated a troubling unintended consequence of the technology:

[W]hile I very much favor mandatory body cameras on police officers, this footage strikes me as an example of their costs. A woman becomes an object of controversy, and suddenly people are digging back into the archives of body-cam footage to unearth any moment that might reflect poorly on her.

For transparency advocates, those misgivings are worth grappling with; some of the national coverage in this case made me uneasy, too. Still, given Click’s elevation, however unsought, to the status of public figure, it’s hard to argue that footage of her actions at a public protest, viewed alongside other accounts, wasn’t newsworthy. And it’s hard to imagine a system for retention and release that doesn’t make some trade-offs between competing concerns. (In a statement, Click disputed elements of the report that led to her termination, and said that both videos “deserve to be understood in a wider frame of reference, among all of the momentous events” occurring on campus.)

At the Missourian, journalists say their goal was not to expose or hurt Click, but simply to tell her story, and that of the protest movement on campus, as comprehensively as possible. And the homecoming protest captured by the body-cam footage “wasn’t just any moment,” says Tom Warhover, the paper’s executive editor and an associate professor of journalism at MU. “It was one of the pivotal moments in the social-justice movement on campus in the last year.”

The Missourian had already published a video of the homecoming protest just after it happened in October. Click, in fact, was visible in that video, but at that point, no one took notice.

“Before the ‘muscle’ incident happened, she was just another person who joined the protest. But her actions changed perceptions,” Brian Kratzer, the Missourian’s director of photography and an assistant professor of journalism, wrote in an email. “About a day or two later, one of my students pointed out she was in our Homecoming video.”

Kratzer asked graduate student reporter William Schmitt to make a public-records request to the Columbia police for all body-cam footage of the protest and relevant incident reports. They received the footage in late January; Kratzer reviewed it and found the sequence in which Click cursed at police. Still, the paper hesitated before releasing it.

“Fully aware that this video alone could feel like a hit piece, with little or no context or reason other than the spectacle of more public shaming, I realized we had to wait for the right time,” Kratzer said.

The paper sat on the video for a few weeks before finally folding it into a long-form profile written by Schmitt that was published on Feb. 13. Framed around Click’s efforts to rehabilitate her image, the story quoted her at length along with comments from friends, students, and former colleagues. Schmitt also gave her the opportunity to respond to the previously unreleased homecoming video, which appeared two sections into the piece.

But despite the broader perspective the article provided, it was the video itself that drew all the attention—and spawned a new wave of national coverage. The “public shaming” happened anyway.

 

Body-cams present us with a very tricky dilemma.


This is what concerns body-cam advocates like the ACLU’s Stanley, who has written that police dash-cam footage has at times been “released for no important public reason… instead serving only to embarrass individuals.” Body-cams, he wrote, present the same risks.

It’s difficult for us because we are a transparency organization, but we also are a privacy organization,” he said in an interview. “Body-cams present us with a very tricky dilemma.” 

Stanley has helped craft ACLU model legislation that, among other things, would set limits on what footage can be retained and released. Under the model bill, body-cam video would be deleted after six months and exempt from public disclosure unless certain conditions were met, including “use of force” or events leading up to a felony arrest.

It’s not clear, though, that release of the homecoming video would have been blocked under such a law. Some “use of force,” however minor, was arguably applied by police in moving demonstrators off the street. And, as Stanley said, “we don’t want the definition of ‘use of force’ to be too narrow.” A narrow definition could give too much discretion to police about when to release footage.

For now, the Columbia police department says that its policy is to retain all footage for 60 days, with the option to retain indefinitely if necessary in some cases. There are no apparent limitations preventing release of footage beyond exemptions that already exist in Missouri for all police records.

But Missouri and states throughout the country have been considering legislation governing body cams, ostensibly to protect privacy but sometimes imposing limitations on access more onerous than those proposed by the ACLU. When South Carolina last year became the first state to require all local police departments to adopt body-cams, it simultaneously made the footage exempt from public-records requests.

Even the ACLU’s proposal goes too far for some transparency advocates. In December, researchers at Yale’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic argued in a white paper that existing freedom-of-information laws are sufficient to protect citizens’ privacy, and that states should not enact further restrictions on body-cam access. “We appreciate the ACLU’s high regard for citizen privacy,” the authors said in a statement to CJR. But, they added, “where needed, courts can decide how best to balance this privacy with the need for information accessibility…. Body cam footage can and should be treated like other public records.”

The fight for access to body-cam footage, as with all kinds of public records, will continue for the foreseeable future. There may never be a full consensus, but journalists can help their case for access to footage by being judicious in how they use it.

At the Missourian, Warhover is confident his paper did the right thing. But, he says, “I totally get the privacy concerns with body cameras. If they’re misused, you could be publishing anything about anybody in which police respond to a call. And that’s one reason we need a responsible press as opposed to a free-for-all.”

* This sentence originally referred to the Missourian as a “campus newspaper.” The Missourian is staffed by students at the Missouri School of Journalism, but it serves the city of Columbia and the surrounding region. The sentence has been adjusted for clarity.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.