Body cameras for police officers have the potential to increase public trust in law enforcement, reduce the risk that citizens will be victims of excessive force and protect officers from unfounded accusations of abuse. Yet legislation that will be considered by the Florida Senate today would gut those goals and create more suspicion of police by keeping body camera videos secret in too many situations. The proposed public records exemptions are far too broad, and lawmakers should reject them.
The legislation (SB 248) takes the presumption in Florida that government records are open to public inspection and turns it on its head. Videos from police body cameras would be kept secret if the recordings were made inside a private residence or a facility that offers health care, mental health care or social services. So police officers could storm into a house and beat a defenseless resident, yet videos from their body cameras would not be available to the public? Law enforcement officers could act recklessly in any hospital, youth camp or school that offers these services and not worry their actions were being recorded?
It gets worse. The legislation also would exempt videos from police body cameras at the scene of any incident involving a death or an injury that requires taking someone to a medical facility. That covers virtually any situation involving a police shooting, serious auto accident or arrest involving excessive force.
The video of the white South Carolina police officer shooting and killing a black motorist who ran after he was stopped for a broken taillight? The video of the man being beaten by sheriff’s deputies in the California desert? Any video of police responding to the horrible accident Saturday morning in St. Petersburg in which a pedestrian was killed and the driver ran before he was found and arrested?
If video had been taken by a police officer’s body camera in those situations, it would be kept secret from the public under this legislation. The public records exemptions would make the body cameras useless as tools for holding police accountable for their actions.
Instead, the videos could become little more than promotional propaganda for police departments. The legislation would give law enforcement agencies the discretion to release the videos to the public to “further its official duties and responsibilities.” So Floridians could see plenty of videos of police officers doing their jobs well, but be kept in the dark when the officers’ performance falls short. To give police departments the discretion to decide when they will release body camera videos and when they won’t turns the public records law inside out.
The legislation would allow the media or the public to seek a court order to force body camera videos to be released. But it says judges must consider eight factors, including whether making the video public would harm the reputation of a person in the recording. Good luck arguing a police video at a crime scene is not hurting someone’s reputation.
There are legitimate issues to consider about the public release of police body camera videos. The victims of sexual assault or abuse should not be depicted, and there already are public records exemptions that address those situations. Juveniles who are not involved in serious crimes and not in public places deserve some protection. Police informants in many situations have to be protected. But this legislation is not narrowly tailored to address those sorts of reasonable privacy concerns. That is why it is opposed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for public records and open meetings.
The Senate needs to start over. This bill ranks among the worst in years in creating broad exemptions to the public records law that serve no legitimate purpose. It would turn police body cameras into props to create only the facade of accountability, and it would invite more distrust about police rather than build public confidence in law enforcement.
Original article here.