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Coleman holds press conference in Mobile announcing new body cam footage bill

As she announced the legislation, Coleman was surrounded by community members holding signs in support of Jawan Dallas.

Sen. Merika Coleman at a press conference in Mobile.

On Thursday, Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, held a press conference in Mobile announcing the introduction of a bill that would make body camera footage and dash cam footage public record. 

“I have filed the body camera footage transparency transparency bill as a proactive step in the right direction to make sure families the public have access to body cam and dashcam video, especially in fatality situations,” Coleman said. “The bill aims to designate recordings from body worn and dashcam as public records. So it is a matter of public record. The bill also establishes an appeals process in the event that law enforcement fails to provide that requested recordings to you media is well.”

Coleman said the impetus for the bill was her attendance at an emergency community meeting in Mobile to support demanding justice for Jawan Dallas, the black man who died on July 2 after being tased by Mobile Police officers. During that meeting, the Dallas family and their attorneys criticized the process of having to wait four months to finally see body camera footage. 

As she announced the legislation, Coleman was surrounded by community members holding signs in support of Jawan and his family. Christine Dallas, Jawan’s mother, and the attorneys for the family were not present due to having filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Mobile for $36 million dollars. Coleman expressed though that Christine was in full support of the bill. 

Coleman said that she also heard from a member of Stephen Perkins’ family asking what could be done about the body camera situation. Perkins was shot and killed on Sept. 29 by Decatur Police Department officers in a matter akin to an ambush. The Perkins family still has not seen body camera footage in Perkins’ death and have been denied by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).

Without the surrounding surveillance footage it is likely that the circumstances and truth of Perkins’ death would still be under question, with only police officers knowing what truly happened. Coleman said that both of these instances led her to introduce legislation to at least begin the conversation prior to the legislative session beginning in February.

“We’re here today for Justice for Jay,” Coleman said. “No other family should go through what the Dallas family has gone through. No other family should go through what the Perkins family has gone through.”

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Coleman said that the police should be lining up to support the legislation because, “if you are doing your job correctly you should have absolutely nothing to hide.” Coleman also stated that the body camera footage is paid for by the public and should therefore be public record.

“Let’s be transparent when it comes to this body cam and dashcam video, because at the end of the day, how are the body cams paid for,” Coleman asked. “By the taxpayers. By the citizens. It belongs to the people.”

In 2021, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that body camera footage were not covered under public record’s law in the state. Coleman said her legislation, if passed, would override that ruling.

In the preliminary draft of Coleman’s bill body camera and dash cam footage would be deemed public record and a law enforcement agency will have 30 days to release or deny release of the footage. There is also an appeals process outline whereby an individual can file a petition with a circuit court so a judge can then rule on whether to allow the footage to be released or not.

The Mobile Police Department said they would not be commenting regarding the drafted legislation. 

Democratic In-Fighting

Coleman admitted passing the bill in the upcoming 2024 legislative session would likely be an uphill battle because the legislature is comprised of a Republican supermajority. However, there is also pushback from some in Coleman’s own party that the legislation and her handling of the process is purely for political gain. 

Coleman is running in the 2nd Congressional District race. 

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Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, is running in the District 2 congressional race as well and has harshly criticized Coleman saying that this attempt was motivated to help her campaign and the bill would not pass the legislature as constructed.

“Foolery,” Givan told WKRG, “foolery at its best. It’s an embarrassment… Now, the Republicans may just freeze on all body cam. You hurt a process that it took us so long to even get on the table. It took us so long to get on the table. And the way she has handled it, nobody from the Black Caucus is going to support her on this.”

During the 2023 legislative session Givan introduced a bill that was signed into law that gave law enforcement the option to deny or give body camera access to individuals involved in the footage or certain representatives including family members. Although the bill is now law and families like the Dallas family have seen the body camera footage, four months later, it has come under criticism as not granting more transparency. 

Givan’s legislation still gives police the discretion to deny an individual or family from seeing the footage. And if an investigation has commenced the footage will not be accessible until the investigation has concluded. Givan said she is working on an amended version of the bill to introduce in 2024 to address the problems she has heard as she has also talked to the Dallas family. 

Coleman was also criticized by Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, as she called the press conference a, “a campaign move on [Coleman’s] part”, according to Figures’ son, Shomari Figures, is also running for the seat in the 2nd Congressional District. While Coleman is being criticized for political opportunism those criticizing her also have a vested interest in the political outcome of the 2nd Congressional race.

Patrick Darrington is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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