Police Cameras Might Be Kept Secret

Police cameras are supposed to record what police do, but if legislators get their way, they will be useless.

Equipping police with cameras requires a great deal of money. So it is interesting that Yahoo News reports that, having given us a way of monitoring police at great expense, legislatures are now moving to take it away: “State bills would limit access to officer body camera videos.”

State legislators around the country are pushing to make it much harder for the public to obtain police officer body camera videos, undermining their promise as a tool people can use to hold law enforcement accountable.

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.

Advocates for open government and civil rights are alarmed.

Police departments nationwide are already spending millions to outfit officers with cameras and archive the results. In this latest clash between the people’s right to know and government authority, the responsibility to record encounters, retain copies and decide what to make public mostly rests with the same police.

In the absence of public records protections, these police decisions can be unilateral and final in many cases.

“It undercuts the whole purpose of the cameras,” said Michelle Richardson, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“People behave better on film, whether it’s the police or the suspect, because they realize others are going to see them. When you take away that possible consequence, you really undercut the oversight value of these,” she said.

[See also, “Welcome to the Police State.”]

I find myself agreeing with some of the privacy concerns. I have to wonder if it would be possible to save the footage to only be reviewed if there is a question about what actually happened. In other words, I could see a reasonable argument that we don’t want people combing through the footage on a “fishing expedition” to find fault with police or anyone else. According to the story, advocates for releasing the video footage are open to covering faces so that privacy is protected.

But what are we to make of the stuff coming from the White House?

But the White House, through the Task Force on 21st Century Policing created in December, suggested new restrictions this month, despite President Barack Obama’s promise that the videos would improve transparency in policing.

The task force warned that releasing videos showing use of force, “even when lawful and appropriate,” can undermine trust in police, and that images showing minors and graphic events raise concerns. It said public-records laws need updating to protect the privacy of people in these recordings.

So we are supposed to not release the video for PR reasons?