The use of body cameras by law enforcement has benefits and challenges. The content they capture has been the topic of much debate across the U.S. in recent years.
Video in general has made our lives not just our own, in good ways and bad. Sometimes video from a security camera can be very helpful in tracking down a missing person or helping identify the perpetrator of a crime. Sometimes video can be invasive and illegal.
Some folks believe that body camera footage will help prevent police misconduct. Often, though, the video caught on dashcams and body cameras has exonerated the officers in question. But there have been times when a rogue cop has been served justice by what their own cameras captured.
Another big piece of the debate is privacy. Law enforcement ends up involved in the most intimate and private parts of our daily lives by the nature of their work: Assisting sexual assault victims, responding to reports of a natural death in the home or a car accident, tending to our children when they are in peril. You know, the kind of things that the world really doesn’t need to see up close and personal.
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Our Legislature passed a bill this year that encourages jurisdictions to adopt body camera technology and would limit the public release of those videos. The bill awaits action by the governor. We hope he signs it.
Bills restricting public access set off alarms for those of us who champion the public’s right to know and access to public records. But we recognize that there is also a need for some degree of privacy when law enforcement comes to call. Not every visit is for a criminal violation. Some are purely in the mode of to protect and to serve the public.
Not everything officers see is all of our business.
The new law would allow jurisdictions to withhold video that “is offensive to a reasonable person.” Of course, just what that means will surely be tested in our court system.
Obviously of concern are images of victims of sexual assault, the mentally ill and victims of domestic violence. The kind of folks who through no fault of their own will end up in the middle of a police investigation and on digital content.
For police departments, another issue is the ability to filter hundreds of hours of video to satisfy requests for it. Public records requests can become unmanageable when those doing the requesting do a shotgun approach and ask for everything, rather than a more focused inquiry.
The bill would require a person requesting a body camera recording to identify a person involved in an incident; provide a case number; name an officer involved; or give the time, date and place of the incident.
Footage showing minors, patients, victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse, the interior of a home or the body of a dead person can be exempt. Anyone shown in a recorded incident involving an officer would have the right to receive a copy of that video.
The bill also sets up a task force to examine best practices for the use of body cameras, a step that we hope will help law enforcement, journalists and the public work through the challenges related to body cameras.
Although we’re not fans of limiting public access, when the Public Records Act was crafted, cops wearing cameras was not on anyone’s radar.
We appreciate the effort that went into the law and what seem to be reasonable protections of privacy while still allowing for video release when it is in the public’s interest. And we appreciate the creation of a task force to help us as a society find a balance between privacy and the public’s right to know.