Atlanta’s standards for releasing body camera footage is increasingly subjective

By: Matt Scott

This story has been updated to include a response from the City of Atlanta Department of Law, which was not initially received prior publication.

On Oct. 3, WSB-TV ran a story on the arrest of Cop City opponent Matthew Johnson complete with a video package created by the Atlanta Police Department (APD) public affairs unit that included body camera footage of Johnson’s arrest, in apparent contradiction to the department’s prevailing stance on releasing body camera footage. 

For over two months, the City of Atlanta has denied releasing footage of the killing of deacon Johnny Hollman by a former APD officer. City officials say they cannot release footage of arrests or events while related cases are under adjudication.  

WSB-TV’s Michael Seiden, who has worked for the station since 2018, emailed APD’s public affairs office early on Oct. 2. “I’m working on a story about the recent arrest of Matthew Johnson” he wrote. “He’s a huge opponent of the new public safety training center.” Seiden requested APD provide a copy of the incident report for Johnson’s arrest and “body cam footage showing his arrest.”

“Let me check with Sarge to see if [body camera] footage can be released at this time pending adjudication,” APD Public Affairs Officer Anthony Grant responded.

The exchange between Seiden and Grant took place just over a week after City Attorney Nina Hickson told the Atlanta City Council Public Safety Committee that the city could not release body camera footage of the killing of Deacon Johnny Hollman by former Atlanta Police Department (APD) officer Kiran Kimbrough. The city’s reason for not releasing that footage is that the case is pending adjudication.

Seiden, having written about the issue on Aug. 19, is no stranger to the killing of Hollman or calls by the deacon’s family to release body camera footage of his death. Footage of Johnson’s arrest would not be released if held to the same the standard used to deny the release of the Hollman footage.

Seiden’s opening statement about Johnson’s status as a “huge opponent to the training center” raises concerns about the intent behind covering the story. The headline of Seiden’s story also mentions Johnson’s opposition to Cop City, drawing criticism on social media by Atlanta’s News First journalist Patrick Quinn.

“Why is Matthew’s outspokenness against the training center the headline?” Quinn wrote on X hours after WSB-TV released its story. “I agree it’s worth a mention – but why lead with it…Matthew is not an elected official or public figure. The illegal act should be the focus, not his stance on a controversial issue. This doesn’t sit right.”

WSB-TV’s article also does not mention that the station is owned by Cox Media Group, which is itself owned by private equity firm Apollo Global Management and Cox Enterprises. Alex C. Taylor, President and CEO of Cox Enterprises, is the chief fundraiser for the Cop City project, and Tony Ressler, one of the co-founders of Apollo, donated $1 million to the project personally.  

Hours after Seiden’s initial email to APD public affairs, Officer Grant emailed Seiden a video package evidently put together by another APD public affairs officer and intended for release on the department’s social media accounts. “[My sergeant] is ok with me sending this to you,” Grant wrote. “Just keep in mind this edit was slated for social media, so we’ll be posting this after you air your story.”

Seiden asked no follow up question about why the department was releasing footage of an event still under investigation; instead, he asked if APD would delay posting the video to their social media accounts. “I will run the [Johnson] story tomorrow,” Seiden wrote, “so if you can hold off until after it airs, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks again.”

“Will do,” replied Grant. 

When reached for comment about the exchange with Seiden, APD Sergeant John Chafee responded, “Out of respect for the work you and your media colleagues do, we always consider holding off on our post until after the reporter has run their story. Many times, we choose to hold our post, but there have been multiple other times where we chose not to hold off on our post and we let the reporter know we were already working on the story and will be posting it as previously planned.”

Ultimately, APD did not post the video package it prepared of Johnson’s arrest to the department’s X, Instagram or Facebook pages. 

Chafee also told ACPC, “If you follow us on social media, you will see we post good arrests and other stories fairly regularly.”

When asked in a follow-up email to define what constitutes a good arrest, Chafee did not go into further detail. “I would encourage you to check us out on social media,” Chafee wrote. “I think that would give you a good idea of the cases we have highlighted.”

When asked how the department qualifies footage as appropriate for release or not, Sgt. Chafee stated, “In some open cases, we release a portion of video evidence in an effort to show what occurred.”

“There can be an on-going investigation and a court case that could be impacted,” Chafee continued, “so we work to pick portions of video that will not affect the investigation or adjudication.”

Chafee did not further explain how that determination is made by the Department. ACPC reached out to the City’s Law Department asking for “any sort of written policy document regarding the release of body worn camera footage by the Atlanta Police Department while cases are pending investigation or adjudication… [or] who is responsible for deciding what videos may or may not be released by the department and how is that decision made?”

City Attorney Amber A. Robinson informed ACPC that the Department of Law does not have any such records and directed the inquiry back to APD.

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One response to “Atlanta’s standards for releasing body camera footage is increasingly subjective”

  1. Rita V Avatar
    Rita V

    Outstanding journalism. Exposing truths!
    Thank you.

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