MESA, AZ — Mesa police claim they were legally required to completely blur the police body-worn camera video of a December officer-involved shooting prior to publicly releasing it.
Many police departments rolled out body-worn-cameras to increase transparency and accountability, but their responses vary greatly when it comes to releasing the video publicly, even when receiving official public records requests.
"The body cam video is a public record," explained lawyer Dan Barr, who specializes in First Amendment and public records cases. "Under the [Arizona] public records law, there’s a strong presumption that would be produced, and only if the police can show specific harm, or privacy confidentiality, or best interest of the state, can they redact any portion of it."
The Mesa Police Department released the December shooting video last month, just days after an officer was criminally charged in the incident. Now former Officer Nathan Chisler is charged with aggravated assault for shooting Randy Sewell, an unarmed man, outside a Mesa sports bar. Sewell, who was hospitalized after taking a bullet to the hip, also faces criminal charges in the case.
The videos, from several police body-worn cameras, depict officers' initial encounter with Sewell, an attempt to handcuff him, a Taser deployment, a scuffle, the shooting, and the aftermath. Every second of the videos has an all-over blur, which makes it difficult to see faces or detailed actions.
"It neither meets the letter or the spirit of the law," Barr said. "It would be the same thing as releasing a 10-page document and having it all out of focus."
When ABC15 questioned why the video was fuzzy and asked to receive an in-focus, unredacted copy, a Mesa assistant police chief denied the request.
Mesa police "take the privacy rights of victims very seriously and work diligently to ensure those rights are protected," Assistant Chief Ed Wessing wrote in an email.
Wessing added that "Randy Sewell and the officer(s) who were assaulted and/or injured" are "all listed as victims in cases currently going through Superior Court."
He asserted that ABC15 would have to explain why the public's right to see the video outweighed those victims' privacy rights.
"You can label yourself victims, and all the sudden, presto-chango, this video becomes so private that you have to blow the whole thing out?" Barr questioned.
Mesa and several other Valley police agencies have released similar blurred videos in response to past ABC15 records requests, even when officers were not "victims."
In 2019, Glendale police initially put a soft focus and deleted the audio on five videos requested by the ABC15 Investigators, who were looking into misconduct claims against Officer Matt Schneider.
Tempe police blurred the video showing the DUI arrest of a local politician in 2017, but the department released some other videos unaltered, like video of the 2019 police shooting of 14-year-old Antonio Arce.
The ABC15 Investigators will continue to push for unblurred video in former Officer Chisler's shooting and other incidents of police violence.