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RCFP attorneys are fighting (and winning) legal battles to make police bodycam videos public

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  1. Freedom of Information
Through the Local Legal Initiative, RCFP attorneys have helped reporters and news outlets obtain bodycam footage in several cases.
A screen grab of a police body-worn camera video capturing the aftermath of Tyre Nichols's arrest on Jan. 7, 2023.
A screen grab of a police body-worn camera video capturing the aftermath of Tyre Nichols's arrest on Jan. 7, 2023.

Late last year, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine co-published an investigation exploring what they called the “failed promise” of police body-worn cameras.

The story concluded that the nationwide movement to equip officers with bodycams hasn’t resulted in the kind of transparency and accountability that many advocates and lawmakers had envisioned — largely because the decision to release bodycam footage is often in the hands of law enforcement who frequently choose to withhold it.

As reporter Eric Umansky writes, “whether citizens benefit from the cameras they’re paying for is often up to the police, who have often been able to keep footage hidden from the public in even the most extreme cases.”

In many cases, the only way for journalists to shine a light on the actions of law enforcement officers is to sue police departments for access to bodycam footage or otherwise challenge court orders shielding it from disclosure — which attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have successfully done on several occasions. Over the past few years, Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative attorneys have helped local journalists and news organizations obtain bodycam videos through litigation in Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

Those victories have helped shape interpretations of a new state law, change a city policy, and fuel important investigative journalism in the public interest, including in cases where law enforcement officers have been accused of using excessive force. Here’s a review of the cases Reporters Committee attorneys have litigated on behalf of journalists and news outlets in our Local Legal Initiative states.


In Colorado, Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Rachael Johnson successfully litigated back-to-back cases in 2021 concerning the release of police bodycam videos. In separate rulings issued roughly two weeks apart, judges in Weld and Arapahoe counties ordered the disclosure of bodycam footage that led to the prosecution of police officers who allegedly placed people they were arresting in chokeholds.

Johnson argued in both cases that recordings of the incidents should be publicly released under a relatively new Colorado law that requires the public disclosure of audio and video recordings documenting incidents in which officers are accused of misconduct.

Katie Townsend, the Reporters Committee’s deputy executive director and legal director, said at the time that winning the two police bodycam cases during the law’s infancy is significant.

“This is a brand new law in Colorado, one that’s intended to expand public access to police body camera footage,” Townsend said. “It is important for the Local Legal Initiative to press what we view as the correct interpretation of that law through litigation on behalf of news organizations.”


In Oklahoma, former Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Kathryn E. Gardner helped the Muskogee Phoenix obtain police bodycam recordings and a 911 call related to the shooting deaths of six people, including five children. The newspaper sought legal support from the Reporters Committee after the Muskogee County district attorney tried to block the release of the recordings, arguing the public records would compromise an ongoing investigation or prosecution.

Gardner successfully argued that the public had a right to access the bodycam video and 911 call. A judge ultimately ordered their release last year, making it possible for the Muskogee Phoenix to report important details about the suspect’s arrest and the larger circumstances of the alleged killings that shocked the local community.

Gardner also helped the McCurtain Gazette obtain bodycam footage and other records related to the death of a Choctaw Nation citizen who became unresponsive and later died at a local hospital after he was Tasered by local sheriff’s deputies. According to the newspaper, the recordings showed the man begging for his life after being Tasered multiple times.

Gardner’s work on behalf of the McCurtain Gazette was included in a New Yorker story last year about the newspaper’s efforts to hold the local sheriff’s office accountable — and the disturbing threats one of its reporters faced for trying to do so.

(Gardner departed the Reporters Committee in May 2023. Denver Nicks joined the Reporters Committee in September 2023 as its new Local Legal Initiative attorney for Oklahoma.)


In Oregon, former Local Legal Initiative Attorney Ellen Osoinach helped Eugene Weekly and one of its reporters challenge the Eugene Police Department’s rejection of a public records request seeking police bodycam videos documenting law enforcement’s response to a man experiencing a mental health crisis.

A district attorney ordered the disclosure of the bodycam footage after Osoinach filed a petition arguing that the police department’s rejection of the records request violated Oregon’s Public Records Law.


In Pennsylvania, Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke successfully resolved two separate cases for access to police bodycam footage under Pennsylvania’s Act 22, a law passed in 2017 authorizing members of the public to request video or audio recordings created by law enforcement agencies.

In 2021, Burke helped journalist Hurubie Meko and LNP Media obtain more than a dozen hours of bodycam videos capturing a clash between protesters and law enforcement officers outside of the Lancaster City Bureau of Police during demonstrations demanding police reform and accountability in September 2020.

The following year, Burke helped The Patriot-News/PennLive and its reporter Charles Thompson reach an agreement with a local district attorney’s office that allowed Thompson to watch the unredacted and complete bodycam footage of police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a man who refused to surrender to police officers when they arrived at his home to serve a warrant for his arrest.

Burke recently spoke with Axios Philadelphia about how Act 22 has complicated efforts to access bodycam videos in the state. “The promise of body cameras hasn’t been realized in Pennsylvania,” she said.


In Tennessee, Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paul McAdoo sued the city of Memphis on behalf of journalist Marc Perrusquia for access to bodycam footage from three separate incidents of alleged use of excessive force by city police officer Colin Berryhill.

After the lawsuit was filed, the city of Memphis agreed to turn over the requested records, which Perrusquia used to report on Berryhill’s repeated use of excessive force and police agencies’ troubling practice of heavily editing bodycam footage they release to the public. Perhaps even more importantly, the city issued a new written policy stating that all administrative investigations in which a Memphis police officer is found to have used excessive force will now be referred to the district attorney, which the city did not do in the Berryhill case.

More recently, McAdoo helped a news media coalition successfully challenge two court orders prohibiting the city of Memphis and Shelby County from disclosing public records they provided to the district attorney in connection with the prosecutions of five former Memphis police officers charged with last year’s fatal beating of Tyre Nichols.

After a judge lifted the closure order last November, the city of Memphis and Shelby County released a cache of records, including 21 hours of bodycam videos and other recordings, as well as 1,300 pages of documents, that provided context to recordings released last year showing police officers punching and kicking Nichols while he pleaded for them to stop. Some of the recordings showed police officers appearing confused about why they pulled Nichols over and offering conflicting accounts about how Nichols responded to officers’ orders.

“Access to body-worn camera footage and other videos that show the actions of police officers is critically important to the public’s ability to hold law enforcement accountable. In some cases, such recordings are the only source of information about police officers’ conduct,” McAdoo said after the records were made public. “We urged the court to rescind the closure orders in this case to ensure that the body-worn camera videos and other records previously kept from the public can be used as effective tools for transparency and police accountability.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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