States Focus on Transparency, Accountability in Police Bodycam Guidelines

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Photo by North Charleston via Flickr

With more police departments requiring their officers to wear cameras, states are continuing to refine their laws governing use of the devices.

Since January 2017 alone, 16 states have passed laws related to body-worn cameras, according to a report issued Monday by The Urban Institute.  Some 12 states have legislation pending

The institute, which has been tracking this legislation,has identified five policy trends related to transparency and accountability, according to report authors Nkechi Erondu and Nancy La Vigne.

Many states are developing model evidence-based policies and standards around camera use. In 2016, several states established commissions, study groups and pilot programs.

In January 2017, the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board issued standards that include requiring law enforcement to inform citizens when they are
being recorded and blocking citizens from reviewing recordings at the scene of an incident.

In the same month, Nebraska passed a policy developed by its Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice governing when and how to use body-worn cameras and regulating the storage and destruction of footage.

There’s no national standard on when footage is considered public record. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have either passed or proposed legislation related
to access.

Only a few states exempt all body-worn camera footage from public records requests; most others have a variety of exemptions associated with disclosure or allow requests on a per-incident basis. Many states don’t allow disclosure of records related to an ongoing criminal investigation or disciplinary action.

Privacy issues continue to surface, Erondu and La Vigne said.

In new laws, personal privacy concerns increasingly are at odds with law enforcement investigative needs, prompting a nationwide conversation on the tradeoffs between transparency and privacy.

Utah has prohibited recordings within hospitals, human services programs, or mental care facilities. Tennessee, Kentucky and Washington exempt from public records
requests depictions of vulnerable individuals, such as sex crime and domestic
violence survivors and minors.

State guidelines regarding officer viewings of body camera footage prior to investigations are rare. The issue is whether officers should be allowed to view footage before writing incident reports or make statements after police-involved shootings and other serious incidents.

Police groups generally favor allowing officers to review footage, so they can obtain the best evidence available. Civil rights advocates oppose it, citing damages to accountability and accuracy. Only Arizona, Florida and the District of Columbia have passed statewide regulations. All allow law enforcement to access footage before making a statement or writing a report.

Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon require law enforcement agencies using body-worn cameras to develop written policies.

In the absence of state laws, local police departments have considerable discretion. In Tucson, Az., for example, the police department allows anyone to request footage, and access is automatically granted if the request complies with the state’s public records law.

Legal cases are also shaping policy. In August, a circuit court judge ordered the Mobile, Al., police department to release footage depicting an officer pepper-spraying high school students to WALA-TV/FOX 10 News, but said his ruling did not set a precedent for all body camera videos.

Erondu and La Vigne urged states to “enact legislation that is both responsive to
the demands of community stakeholders and considers evolving technological advancements.”

“Striking the right balance between flexibility in local implementation and comprehensive and uniform standards will be critical in ensuring body-worn cameras enhance transparency and accountability,” they wrote.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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