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Phoenix police have released footage from the body camera of an officer who fired at a vehicle as it drove off during a stop in July. Phoenix Police Department

Despite objections from some in law enforcement, a Phoenix Police Department protocol that establishes a timeline for the release of records after critical incidents  such as police shootings will stand.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office on Monday ruled the policy, implemented in July and challenged by a state lawmaker last month, does not violate state law pertaining to the release of records before an administrative inquiry is completed.

That means almost all records spanning written police reports to body-mounted-camera footage should be released within 30 days of a critical incident, including police shootings.

‘Transparency protocol’

Phoenix Police Chief Jerri Williams directed the department’s public-affairs bureau and investigations team to establish a “transparency protocol” earlier this year, according to a department email. 

The goal, she wrote, was to help “communicate in a fair and consistent manner with our community when we have critical incidents,” such as a fatal shooting, in-custody death or other incident “generating significant community concern.” 

“We must balance our need to be transparent with our responsibility to maintain the integrity of investigations while respecting the rights of victims, suspects and others involved,” Williams wrote.

The protocol also spelled out specific time frames for the release of information that previously lacked rules and was generally handled on a case-by-case basis.

Police will identify officers involved in shootings within seven days of an incident, according to the protocol. They will share information and records with officials, union representatives, command staffers and the community relations bureau within 14 days. 

And all records and recordings will be shareable with families, the police department and news media within 14 to 30 days, according to the protocol, with some variation possible because “every incident will involve unique circumstances.”

Lawmaker sought investigation

Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, submitted a request Nov. 6 for the state to investigate Phoenix police’s protocol. He suggested the policy violated a section of Arizona law because it allowed for the release of part of an officer’s personnel file before the conclusion of an administrative disciplinary investigation.

In its response, Phoenix said it has released records and information related to critical incidents prior to an investigation’s completion for years. Departments usually weighed whether the incident would “jeopardize its investigations into the incident.” 

Investigators with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, in their Monday ruling, said the protocol didn’t actually provide guidance about whether or when that information should go in an officer’s file, and the dissemination of information and records in high-profile incidents does not violate the law. 

The law “governs very limited conduct — placing information about an ongoing administrative disciplinary investigation in the publicly available portion of an officer’s employee-personnel file.” 

Phoenix police’s protocol “provides no guidance about whether or when such information should be included in an officer’s file,” investigators found. The release of information and records about a critical or other high-profile incident does not violate the law.

Neither the union that represents Phoenix police nor Lawrence returned a request seeking comment.

Release of records varies

Departments vary in how they handle the release of sensitive information — especially when officers are involved in shootings.

Some agencies, like the Flagstaff Police Department, err on the side of transparency and make recordings and records widely available online within hours or days of a shooting.

That’s what happened in October, when police fatally shot a man outside Walmart and then quickly posted multiple vantage points that had been captured on officers’ body-mounted cameras.

Other departments withhold recordings and related reports until a complete investigation is concluded. That means both a criminal evaluation as well as a series of internal and administrative reviews into the officer’s use of force.

Phoenix police have approximately 300 VieVue cameras in use throughout the city, Sgt. Jonathan Howard said Tuesday. The department is working to identify and purchase additional cameras for the entire patrol division “in the coming years.” 

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8515, jpohl@azcentral.com or on Twitter: @pohl_jason. 

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