At the bottom of most news releases that circulate from local and state governmental agencies is this disclaimer: Florida has a very broad public records law. Most written communications to or from state and local officials regarding state or local business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your email communications may therefore be subject to public disclosure.
Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature is doing its best to chip away at that access and keep what we believe are important public records from not only the media, but from you. One example is Senate Bill 248, sponsored by Sen. Christopher Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, creating exemptions for law enforcement video shot by body cameras in places like hospitals, private homes and other locations.
At a time when law enforcement faces intense scrutiny over police-related shootings and killings, such restrictions on transparency do nothing but heighten the public’s restrictions over how such investigations are being conducted.
Police cameras face intense scrutiny anyway as agencies wrestle with a person’s right to privacy in certain situations, but they are gaining in popularity. The Cape Coral and Fort Myers police departments recently started using the cameras. The Cape has six officers equipped, while another 54 will use them once video storage equipment arrives. Fort Myers has purchased 40 cameras. Officers had both departments participated in training.
Cape and Fort Myers are among 13 departments in the state using the cameras, while nine are testing them through pilot programs.
The body camera exemption continues what is an alarming assault on what we consider to be one of the best public records package of laws in the country. Last year, 22 exemptions were created (about 12 percent of all bills passed). This year, another 11 House and Senate bills are pushing for public records exemptions.
The ACLU, First Amendment Foundation, The News-Press and many other media outlets have been consistent in their objections to these exemptions. We can’t allow secrecy in government agencies where we don’t feel it is needed.
Michelle Richardson, director of public policy for the ACLU, told reporters the exemptions favor power of police over citizens. Such power only intensifies the level of mistrust the public can have for law officers.
The increased use of body cameras is driven by killings of black men by white officers in Ferguson, Mo., South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Agencies want the video to not only assist them in investigations but to protect their officers. Any additional devices that aid in the completion of investigations is important, but does not need to be withheld from the public. Some police agencies are still working through privacy protection and union issues.
But the privacy of an individual should not restrict the public from having access to information pertinent to an investigation.
The Senate bill could go before a full vote soon. Broad language over privacy protections at the scenes of injuries, deaths and other medical emergencies was removed this week. A similar bill in the House has not yet been heard.
Original article here.