Almost any video recorded by police body cameras is a public record under Florida law. But that could change with a bill moving through the Florida Legislature.
On Tuesday, the Senate tweaked a bill that would restrict access to police body camera video, before sending the measure toward a full Senate vote.
The bill would create public records exemptions for video taken in hospitals or private homes, among other places.
Body cameras are growing in use among local law enforcement agencies, especially after last summer’s police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
More recently, national attention has focused on two incidents involving white law enforcement officers who killed black men in South Carolina and Oklahoma, which will likely intensify pressure for public accountability.
Responding to critics, lawmakers eliminated a restriction on video of medical emergencies. But civil liberties advocates opposing the bill said it still goes too far.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Christopher Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the bill is designed to carve out from Florida’s strong public records laws some privacy protection for citizens captured on video in police interactions.
Video from inside a home or hospital would be available to law enforcement or people on the video. That would also apply to motel rooms or anywhere else “a reasonable person would expect to be private,” according to the bill.
But that does not mean, Smith said, that such videos could never be released. People could decide to release videos that they appear in.
“It empowers citizens to control video taken where they deem it private,” Smith said. “You can release the video. You can allow anyone you want to release the video. You can let the television station pick it up.”
An earlier version of the bill, SB 248, had extended privacy protection to the scenes of injuries, deaths and other medical emergencies, but Smith said he agreed to remove that language Tuesday. “That was overly broad,” he said.
Critics of the bill at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the First Amendment Foundation said that change was a step in the right direction.
Increased use of body cameras is driven in part by a police shooting incidents, which necessarily include medical emergencies, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
But Petersen and other critics still oppose the other privacy measures in the bill.
“These are overbroad exemptions that go to the heart of what the body cameras are supposed to do,” she said.
Petersen pointed to a police shooting last year in Daytona Beach, where police have had body cameras for about three years. Police entered a home and shot local football star Jermaine Green as he held his girlfriend in a choke hold and threatened her with a butcher knife.
The incident was captured on the officers’ body cameras. “Would you rather see the video, or read a subjective report of what happened?” asked Petersen, of the First Amendment group.
At least 13 police departments in the state are using the cameras; nine have pilot programs to test them.
In Sarasota, police body cameras are on hold while the city creates a policy to govern them. The Sarasota Police Department was set to begin using 24 body cameras on patrol officers this year, but the City Commission stopped the program after criticism from civil liberties activists and police union officials.
The ACLU of Florida opposes Smith’s bill, even while acknowledging the legitimate privacy interests involved, said Michelle Richardson, director of public policy for the group.
Richardson said the bill restricts public access to video while placing no limits on law enforcement, favoring the power of police over citizens.
Some privacy issues could be dealt with by homeowners asking police to turn off their cameras in non-emergency situations, Richardson said. In some cases, they may not have the last word.
“Even if the person doesn’t want it released, sometimes the public interest is so great.”
Smith’s bill raises the minimum time law enforcement must preserve the video from 30 to 90 days. The law would sunset in 2020 unless extended by the Legislature, and because it changes the public records law, it would need a two-thirds vote to pass in each chamber.
The Senate could vote on the bill next week. It has not yet been heard in the House.
A separate bill moving through the Legislature would require local law enforcement agencies using body cameras to write policies governing them. That bill, HB 57, has cleared House committees while a Senate version has been sent to the Criminal Justice committee.
Original article here.