A bill that would allow certain police body-camera footage to be kept from public view is facing criticism from Sunshine Law advocates and others who say it would defeat the very purpose of the devices.
The legislation (SB 248), would make body-camera video exempt from public-records law when it is shot within a private residence, inside a health care facility or any other place that a reasonable person would expect to be private.
It also would exempt video shot at the scene of a medical emergency where someone is killed or injured badly enough that they must be taken for treatment — a provision opponents say would exempt video from any instance of excessive force by police.
More than a dozen groups in Florida are opposing the bill, including the First Amendment Foundation, ACLU of Florida, the NAACP and Equality Florida. The bill has sailed through three committees and is set to for discussion on the Senate floor today.
Body cameras are used by more than a dozen police departments in Florida, including the Tallahassee Police Department and the Florida State University Police Department, both of which use them as part of their motorcycle patrols. Nine other police departments in the state are using them in pilot programs, according to a bill analysis. One sheriff’s office is using them, in Flagler County, and others are considering their use. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, told members of the Senate Rules Committee earlier this month that he encourages officers to use body cameras and would like to see more police departments get them.
“The concern you have with this is keeping the privacy of individuals,” he said. “And what this does, it gives a public-records exemption for video tape taken where you expect privacy. So if an officer comes into your home, comes into your hotel room, your hospital room — places where you expect privacy — that tape is not public record.” But Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said the bill goes too far and more sensible policies are needed governing the use of body cameras.
“It’s antithetical to the whole purpose of the body cameras,” she said. “We need to reassure ourselves that our law enforcement officers are working in our best interests and they’re not using excessive force, they’re not making unnecessary stops, they’re not shooting a guy in the back as he runs away from him.” The recent killing of 50-year-old Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was caught on video, not by a body camera but by a bystander with a cellphone. In February, an officer with the Orlando Police Department was fired for using excessive force against a handcuffed man in an incident caught on video by another officer’s body camera and a bystander’s cellphone.
The bill would allow law-enforcement agencies to release a body camera video “in furtherance of its official duties and responsibilities.” It also would require agencies to release the videos, or portions of them, to people who are on the recordings and their personal representatives.
Other third parties,including the media, would have to go to court to get the videos if they couldn’t obtain them elsewhere. The judge would be required to consider eight different criteria before deciding whether to release it, including whether it would cause harm to the reputation of anyone in the video. Petersen said that provision alone would have kept the Orlando PD video from coming out because of harm it did to the officer’s reputation.
During the bill’s most recent committee hearing, Smith said victims of police misconduct could release the video to “the local television station.” But he said third parties without permission from those on the video would have to explain to a judge the public interest in releasing the footage.
Smith offered a new version of the bill earlier this month, one that he said took into consideration concerns by law enforcement, advocacy groups and others. But Petersen said she wasn’t consulted, and the ACLU of Florida remains opposed.
“We think the exceptions to the public records laws are still too broad and will only serve to hide evidence of police misconduct,” shesaid. Though the bill has no House sponsor, Petersen said the House can take it up simply enough by waiving its rules. Bills that would add new exemptions to the Sunshine Law need a two thirds majority in both chambers to pass, and they automatically sunset in five years unless lawmakers re-enact them.
Original article here.