Lawmakers throughout the USA are grappling with just how much the public is entitled to see when a police body camera has recorded a volatile or even mundane incident on video.
Since the beginning of the year, lawmakers in at least 15 states and Washington, D.C., have introduced legislation that would limit release of footage from the body cameras through open record laws. The cameras are attached to an officer’s clothing, helmet or glasses and capture footage of arrests, traffic stops and other encounters.
New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are among the many large cities testing surveillance cameras with their police officers.
Law enforcement interest in body cameras has surged following the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August that touched off riots and national racial discord over what actually happened moments before Brown was taken down in a barrage of bullets.
“This is another example of technology moving faster than regulation and legislation,” said Matthew Feeney, a policy analyst at the Washington think tank Cato Institute, who has done extensive research on body cameras.
At issue is just how much is a matter of public record in police recorded videos. Governments and police departments argue that while the cameras provide transparency and accountability, they may also compromise a citizen’s right to privacy and the integrity of some investigations which will inevitably rely on the video in a courtroom.
Other recent racially charged incidents, including the police shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., and the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered severe spinal cord injuries while in Baltimore Police custody, have kept the issue in the national spotlight.
In the Gray case, a bystander’s video shows police dragging the man to a police van as he is writhing in pain. A witness captured video of police officer Michael Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran away from the officer. As in the Ferguson case, officers involved in the Baltimore and North Charleston cases weren’t wearing a police camera.
In a speech last week, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pointed to the unrest in Baltimore after Gray’s death to make the case that all police officers should wear cameras to “improve transparency and accountability in order to protect those on both sides of the lens.”
Clinton’s call follows President Obama’s proposal in December to provide law enforcement agencies with $75 million to purchase cameras to help improve transparency in policing.
But a White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing also recently recommended that states and communities update their public record laws, noting that the emerging technology comes with a treasure trove of complexities.
The task force’s March report raises concerns about victims’ privacy and pointed to the December shooting death of a police officer in Flagstaff, Ariz., whose killing was captured by the bodycamera he had on. Facing public records requests from local media, Flagstaff police released a 14-minute video, which ends with the chilling image of a domestic violence suspect pulling out a gun on a rookie police officer that he would use to kill him.
“This illustration also raises questions concerning the recording of police interactions with minors and the appropriateness of releasing those videos for public view given their inability to giveinformed consent for distribution,” the White House task force report said of the Flagstaff case.
The task force’s privacy concerns have been echoed by many state and local policymakers who have begun their own legislative pushes on the issue. Police departments also say they need to limit the broad and costly requests they sometimes get.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser last month proposed forthe city to spend about $5.1 million to purchase 2,800 body cameras for its police force. At the same time, the mayor has called for the videos to be exempt from public record requests.
D.C.’s police chief, Cathy Lanier, has said it would be too expensive and time consuming to make all videos available to the public. She also expressed concern about preserving the privacy of crime victims and witnesses.
“We still have a very strong interest in protecting the privacy of people in general,” Lanier recently told WAMU radio. “If you imagine the cameras being the eyes of a police officer during their shift, there are a lot of people who get caught in the images on the video, and we have a strong interest in protecting their privacy for a lot of reasons.”
Police chiefs and elected officials in several communities, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also have raised concerns about longterm costs.
In December, she vetoed a proposal that would have required officers to wear cameras, because she didn’t think details, such as video storage, were properly weighed. In Baltimore, it was estimated storage could cost up to $2.6 million per year.
But activists and some civil liberty groups say that many of the proposed regulations in the pipeline run counter to the public’s demand for greater transparency and give police far too much authority in deciding what they keep out of the public sphere.
Original article here.