Police accountability remains a major concern. Lawsuits alleging improper police conduct are filed seemingly nonstop. The Department of Justice continues to investigate police department after police department for a variety of civil rights violations. More and more police departments are equipping body cameras on their officers in hopes of trimming down the number of complaints and lawsuits filed against them.
Meanwhile, the public has taken police accountability into its own hands, thanks to the steady march of technology — which has put a portable phone in almost every person’s hands, and put a camera inside most of those phones.
So, we have two entities viewing accountability from seemingly opposite directions. Over the years, many officers have made it clear through their actions that being filmed isn’t something they’re comfortable with. This has resulted in additional misconduct and abuse of existing laws to shut down recordings. But what are these officers going to do when a city council — or worse, a Memorandum of Understanding with the Justice Department — directs them to start generating their own recordings?
One answer has already been presented by the Denver Police Department. They simply won’t activate the cameras.
During a six-month trial run for body cameras in the Denver Police Department, only about one out of every four use-of-force incidents involving officers was recorded.
Cases where officers punched people, used pepper spray or Tasers, or struck people with batons were not recorded because officers failed to turn on cameras, technical malfunctions occurred or because the cameras were not distributed to enough people, according to a report released Tuesday by Denver’s independent monitor Nick Mitchell.
This is a case-by-case “solution,” self-applied as needed by certain officers. For other departments, it appears the imposition of recording devices will be greeted by legislation. Legislators cite “privacy concerns” but their bills do little more than hand law enforcement agencies full control over body camera recordings.
Lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills to exempt video recordings of police encounters with citizens from state public records laws, or to limit what can be made public.
Their stated motive: preserving the privacy of people being videotaped, and saving considerable time and money that would need to be spent on public information requests as the technology quickly becomes widely used.
A small amount of redaction (face-blurring, etc.) would address the privacy concerns. After all, reality TV pioneer COPS has run for years with minimal privacy complaints and that’s all it’s ever used. As for the latter concern — expenses related to open records requests — there are ways to address this that won’t cede complete control to law enforcement agencies. Seattle’s Police Department worked with a local activist to find a solution that would provide footage, protect privacy and stay ahead of voluminous public records requests. Unfortunately, the result of these efforts has produced nothing more than extremely blurry footage in which everything is “redacted” by default.
Justifications offered by legislators try desperately to skew law enforcement’s total control of body camera footage as some sort of win for the general public.
“Public safety trumps transparency,” said Kansas state Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican. “It’s not trying to hide something. It’s making sure we’re not releasing information that’s going to get other people hurt.”
The problem is that if it’s the public being abused in these videos, there are very few options available to obtain recordings of misconduct.
The Kansas Senate voted 40-0 last month to exempt the recordings from the state’s open records act. Police would only have to release them to people who are the subject of the recordings and their representatives, and could charge them a viewing fee. Kansas police also would be able to release videos at their own discretion.
The “fix” for possibly overbroad public records requests includes a) making acquiring a recording unaffordable, even for the person on the receiving end of alleged abuse and b) allowing the Kansas police to push out a steady stream of exculpatory video. The latter of the two is perfectly acceptable, but only if it’s balanced by the public’s ability to obtain less-than-flattering video of interactions with police officers. Nothing about this bill makes the public any “safer,” no matter what Sen. Greg Smith says.
The potential for abuse of laws like these is so obvious even the cops can see it.
“I think it’s a fair concern and a fair criticism that people might cherry pick and release only the ones that show them in a favorable light,” said former Charlotte, North Carolina, police chief Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Arizona’s legislation goes even further than its Midwestern counterpart.
The bill declares that body camera recordings are not public records, and as such can be released only if the public interest “outweighs the interests of privacy or confidentiality or the best interests of the state.”
Not even the subject of the footage can demand a copy of the recording without somehow talking a judge into issuing an order for its release. Washington’s proposed legislation similarly exempts all body camera video from public examination and routes footage requests through the courts. In both cases, bill sponsors claim publicly-released video could be used for “criminal purposes,” but have yet to explain how a properly-redacted video would become a tool for “extortion” by “unscrupulous website owners.”
irony hypocrisy, of course, is that law enforcement agencies and local governments have declared arrest mugshots to be public records and have allowed “unscrupulous website owners” to post the shots and demand payment for their removal. But mugshots only involve members of the public, making them of lesser concern than footage that will also contain police officers. This sort of legislation is nothing more than the codification of a double standard, if that’s the motivation behind it.
On the other hand, some states are at least moving to ensure the general public can continue their unpaid police accountability efforts.
The Colorado bill, which you can read here, states that if a cop seizes a camera from a citizen without permission or a warrant or deliberately interferes with a citizen’s right to record by intimidation or destruction of the camera, the citizen is entitled to $15,000 in civil fees in addition to attorney fees.
This bill will help ensure at least one recording of an officer-involved incident remains intact, seeing as Denver police officers aren’t all that into capturing their end of these interactions.
Another bill in Texas which has not gotten nearly as much publicity comes from democratic representative Eric Johnson, which seeks to protect citizens from bullying officers as well as criminalize cops who confiscate cameras, only to destroy footage.
This pushes back against Texas Congressman Jason Villalba’s recently-introduced bill, which hopes to add a 25-foot no-recording “halo” around police officers at all times — stretching to 100 feet if the camera operator happens to be armed. Villalba has openly stated that “officer safety” is a greater concern than violated First Amendment rights, which would actually be criminalized if his bill passes.
California has also introduced a bill involving citizen recordings — one that will make an incredibly obvious statement into law… presumably because that’s the only way the state will get law enforcement to respect it.
In California, Senate Bill 411 would amend the state’s penal code to say that simply filming or taking a photograph of an officer performing his duty in a public place does not automatically amount to interference.
“Filming isn’t interference” would seem to be something that shouldn’t need to be inserted as an amendment to criminal statutes. As would the following, which is perhaps even more infuriatingly obvious than the sentence above:
Supporters say it protects the First Amendment and clarifies that filming alone does not give police officers probable cause to search or confiscate an individual’s property.
Undoubtedly, there will be law enforcement pushback against the proposed legislation, which should be referenced in the future as the “We Shouldn’t Even Need to Be Telling You This” Act, with “SMDH” as the short title.
Both sets of cameras will help increase law enforcement accountability, but one set is receiving the majority of proposed legislative protections. Shielding body camera recordings from the public eye limits their effectiveness as misconduct deterrents — the very reason they’ve been instituted.