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Bill would limit public access to police video in Massachusetts

Boston Police Superintendent in Chief William Gross wore a body camera during a press conference.
Boston Police Superintendent in Chief William Gross wore a body camera during a press conference. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016)

Secretary of State William F. Galvin is raising alarms about a bill that would allow government agencies in Massachusetts to withhold all police dash-cam and body-camera footage from the public for any reason.

Galvin pointed out there are already exemptions in the state public records law for information that could potentially jeopardize an ongoing investigation or invade people’s privacy. But the bill sponsored by state Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, would go much further, creating a new exemption in the public records law for “any recordings made by a body camera, dashboard camera, or any similar device by a law enforcement officer,” including video capturing fatal police shootings.

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“There is absolutely no need for this,” said Galvin, whose office helps oversee the state’s public records law. Galvin wrote lawmakers Tuesday to raise objections to the bill. “A blanket exemption undercuts the whole purpose of having bodycams.”

The House bill, which is slated to be considered at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on Thursday morning, would also create a task force to establish uniform standards on bodycams — a provision that is likely to be far less controversial.

But the bill’s author said she thought it was vital to protect the privacy of innocent people and bystanders who happened to be captured on film. And she worried the video could be used for salacious entertainment.

“The goal of privacy protection for victims, minors, bystanders, and witnesses, I think, has to be paramount,” Provost said.

Though Provost said she knows there is technology available to pixelate the faces of people, she worried that technology might be flawed.

“It is not clear to me that technology is advanced enough to make it possible to disguise the identity of individuals who might be compromised by having their images released,” she said. Provost said litigants could still potentially obtain the video through discovery or a court order.

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The ACLU of Massachusetts said it supports examining the use of body cameras, but expressed concern about the provision that would restrict public access to the footage. “The public has a right to see these videos, with redactions if necessary to protect personal privacy,” said Kade Crockford, director of the group’s technology for liberty program.

The vast majority of police departments in Massachusetts do not currently use either body cameras or dashboard cameras, but they are becoming more popular both in the state and across the country. Boston police recently assigned roughly 200 officers in some divisions to wear body cameras in an effort to increase transparency and strengthen relations with the community.

Activists and journalists have frequently obtained such footage in other states after police shootings and other contentious encounters with officers. For instance, a Chicago police officer was convicted of second-degree murder last year after a judge ordered the city to release video of a police shooting under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act; the video appeared to contradict the city’s initial explanation of how the incident unfolded. The commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey resigned last year after she was caught on dashcam video in New Jersey cursing at police and flashing her gold badge after a traffic stop involving her daughter.

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Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his group hasn’t taken a position on the specific bill but would welcome greater clarity about when footage should be public.

“There are so many situations where there is the right to know and the competing right to privacy,” he said. “Without clarity and guidelines, cities and towns are in the middle.”

The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association said it has not taken a position on the bill, but welcomes discussion of it.

Most other states have already passed various laws clarifying whether such bodycam footage is public, though the laws vary widely, according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

A new California law generally requires agencies to release footage within 45 days when police fire a weapon or use other force against a person, unless it would interfere with an ongoing investigation. In New Hampshire, a 2016 state law says bodycam coverage is public if it captures an officer using force, discharging a gun, or involves a felony arrest. By contrast, a 2015 South Carolina law generally allows police to withhold bodycam footage. Dashcam video is typically public in most states with some restrictions.

The Massachusetts public records law already is considered one of the weaker versions in the country, because it contains so many exemptions. Massachusetts is the only state where the governor’s office, Legislature, and judiciary all claim to be entirely exempt from the law. The law also contains countless other exceptions for specific types of documents, such as for police reports involving domestic or sexual violence.

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Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.