Police Grapple With Disclosure of Footage
The images inside the police cruiser are fuzzy, impossible to discern until a laptop glows and street lights illuminate the dash. A few minutes pass and the officer is on foot, approaching a white sedan. There are flashlights in the darkness, and maybe that’s the light of a shopping center in the distance.
The half-hour video, which looks like it was shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens, is among hundreds of hours of recordings from body cameras the Seattle Police Department has uploaded to YouTube. Before roughly 800 officers begin using the cameras next year, Seattle police want to know whether posting the videos online is an efficient and affordable way to ensure the public can access them. The videos are “redacted” so that viewers cannot identify the people in them.
As police departments across the country equip their officers with body cameras, many are struggling to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and privacy protections. This year 10 states–Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas–have passed laws concerning public access to the footage, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group that assists journalists.
The South Carolina law exempts footage recorded by the cameras from public disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. A Georgia law that took effect in July limits who can request the videos and pending legislation would deem the videos “records of law enforcement” and not subject to disclosure under that state’s public records law.
In South Carolina, the goal was to protect the privacy of people recorded by police, according to Democratic state Sen. Gerald Malloy, who sponsored the legislation. Malloy noted that the measure allows people with a direct interest in a body-camera video, including the state attorney general, law enforcement agencies and subjects of recordings, to watch it.
“What you want is to have some responsibility,” Malloy said. “[So] you don’t just have everyone requesting it, placing it on the Internet, those kinds of things.”
Earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed legislation that would restrict public access to police videos of assaults and limit what people can review if charges are brought against an officer. In Minnesota, 16 cities have petitioned to make the videos private until legislators decide otherwise.
But Adam Marshall, a legal fellow with the Reporters Committee, called the public records restrictions a “misguided effort” that is unnecessary and risks complicating existing public records laws. “Our position is that almost all are duplicative or unwarranted.”
Existing privacy standards cover which body-camera videos cannot be released, he said, and creating more regulations might hide police misconduct from the public.
“We don’t disagree by any means that there may be body-camera videos that shouldn’t be disclosed under public records laws,” Marshall said. “It seems bizarre to say that if a police officer did something inappropriate and the police officer was inside their home and not on their front porch, then the public wouldn’t have access.”