The use of body cameras, and body camera recordings, prompted some of the most spirited debate during the 2015 legislative session.
The fault line ran between transparency and privacy. Some legislators favored policies that encouraged the use of this technology to help discern the truth during encounters between police and citizens. Other lawmakers advocated stricter limitations designed to protect the privacy of individuals.
The result? Lawmakers approved two different bills. Unfortunately, only one of the bills — Senate Bill 248 — passed both chambers.
It was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott.
This bill constitutes a step backward in the use of body camera recordings in the Sunshine State.
Body camera recordings serve two important purposes: 1.) to provide better oversight of law enforcement; and 2.) to protect law officers from unjust accusations.
However, when restrictions are placed on the public’s access to such recordings, this tool becomes less effective.
SB 248 creates exemptions for body camera recordings made by Florida law enforcement officers in the line of duty. Specifically, recordings will be exempt from public record disclosure when taken:
■ Within the interior of a private residence.
■ At a health care, mental health care or social services facility.
■ In a place where a person recorded or depicted in the recording has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Moreover, the public or media have to prevail in court to obtain the release of body camera recordings covered by the exemptions. By contrast, law enforcement faces no such restrictions. It allows a law enforcement agency to disclose the video in the furtherance of its official duties and responsibilities.
Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, an advocate for transparency and open government, opposed SB 248.
“We strongly recommend the Legislature, rather than create overly restrictive and unwarranted public record exemptions for body camera video recordings, adopt standards for the creation of policies relating to the use of body cameras similar to those now in place in those agencies currently using such technology,” wrote Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, in a letter to the bill’s author, Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
A better alternative — House Bill 57 — would have established general guidelines for the use of body cameras. It would have allowed law enforcement agencies to develop their own specific policies without layering on overly broad public record exemptions (a la SB 248).
But HB 57 never made it to the governor’s desk. It passed the House 113 to 0, but died in a Senate committee.
During the next legislative session, lawmakers need to craft a practical and sensible approach to the use of body cameras and body camera recordings.
Original article here.