WASHINGTON, D.C. -
Body-worn cameras for cops, almost universally supported by Americans, are already in use in nearly a third of local police departments across the country. They’ve been credited in one California city with reducing police violence and complaints against officers, and a Senate bill would put $20 million toward funding them.
But despite public support and funding for body cameras, there’s a big question that’s still (mostly) unanswered: How much of what police see should be made public?
Body cameras quickly emerged in the national dialogue as a way to check police power, but the privacy questions raised have been largely unanswered by the states. Should you be able to watch an officer interview a victim of a crime? Receive a tip from a gang member who fears retaliation for speaking with the cops? Enter a woman’s home who has Alzheimer’s and has gone missing?
Footage from these cameras already is popping up on Youtube, showing police interactions across the country. In a video posted by MPR News, we get a glimpse into a Minnesota woman’s living room after police respond to a missing persons report. And, in another example, we see scores of people leaving a protest in Seattle in a video recorded and posted by the Seattle Police Department.
To date, nine states — Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas — have passed laws specifying whether body camera footage is public record. Material that is part of the public record is open for anyone to request through state Freedom of Information acts, with certain exemptions.
Most of those states have created some kind of exception for body camera footage. They range from blanket bans on making it public — like in Texas and South Carolina — to more nuanced plans like in Illinois, where video that shows use of force, the discharge of a weapon or an injury or death is generally considered public.
In Nevada, all body camera footage is treated as public record, but confidential footage has to be viewed where the video is stored.
“It’s a balancing test, where they’re looking at what privacy things need to be considered and trying to be the most transparent,” said Rich Williams, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures criminal justice program. “They want to be transparent and accountable with the public and make sure law enforcement have that relationship with the public, but they want to protect law enforcement and make sure it isn’t a burden or a punishment.”
In the states that have not passed body camera laws, those decisions are up to individual police agencies — as long as they do not conflict with existing state public record laws.
Daniel Bevarly, the interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, admits police video raises difficult questions about what should be public. But if it’s something that would be public on a transcript of the video, he says, the video itself also should be public.
“The whole idea behind this is to help police agencies be more transparent. That’s the idea for body cameras out there,” he said. “It’s to protect the police officers, but it’s also used to help the public. It should go both ways.”
Any information that would not be released in paper form — names of bystanders, telephone numbers, home addresses — also should stay private on camera, Bevarly said.
But redacting specific parts of videos can be challenging and expensive.
Here in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser initially said the labor-intensive process of redacting video meant that no recordings would be made available to the public.
In response to continued police shootings, however, The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Bowser reversed her position and decided videos filmed outdoor in public would be releasable.
Yet another tact is to only release video that is in the “public interest.” In Oregon, all body camera video is withheld from the public unless its release is judged by police or the state’s attorney general to serve a “public interest.” Even then, the faces of those involved — including police officers — are blurred out.
“I really do think Oregon legislators got it right,” Portland Police Bureau Capt. John Scruggs said. “The nosy neighbor who wants to see someone at the worst time in their life, they won’t be able to request that. But if there’s a public interest, you will be able to get it.”
Scruggs noted that allegations of excessive police force would automatically classify video in the “public interest.”
If there was an incident similar to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., he said, police would make that video public after the investigation was complete.