State Representative, Somerville Democrat
In January 2019, I filed H. 2120, a bill to create uniform, statewide rules for police body camera use. The bill contains privacy “guardrails,” like stringent record storage protections, and a prohibition on facial recognition technology. It would have our judicial system, rather than public records law, control access to body camera footage.
Massachusetts police departments are adopting body cameras without uniformity in their procedures or rules. The Worcester Police Department this year piloted body cameras supplied free by a vendor — which stored the footage. Boston’s body camera policy assumes that footage is a public record, so officers entering a home must obtain consent from the occupant before turning on the camera — to protect personal privacy.
The inherent tension with body cameras is that while the public and the press want to observe police behavior, any person whose image is captured on camera could potentially show up on the evening news. Even in “public” spaces, innocent people can be put in peril — from gangs, abusive partners, or others — if they are spotted on police video footage that is made public. Intimidation of victims and witnesses is a serious problem, and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is relentless about tracking individuals on its lists.
Under the complexities of Massachusetts law, “public” records are often not produced by governmental agencies on request. Responding to records requests is time consuming and labor intensive; those holding records may withhold them under the many existing legal exemptions, such as the integrity of police investigations. Records may also be “redacted,” by partial blurring or blacking out portions of text or images, a task which depends on the good judgment and good faith of those performing the task, and which assumes their actions will not be influenced by other motives.
When there are allegations of police misconduct, those affected should have timely access to clean footage which reveals what occurred. Yet that access should be conditioned on suitable protections, which are best determined by impartial judges. Many of us who have worked in the system would prefer to put the judicial system, not police departments, in control of access to body camera footage.
Wayland resident, executive director of New England First Amendment Coalition
Massachusetts already lags behind most of the country in government transparency — the judiciary, legislature, and governor’s office all consider themselves exempt from the state’s public records law.
Now there’s legislation that would make government even more opaque.
A provision in House Bill 2120 prevents citizens from obtaining police body camera footage, creating a new exemption to the public records law. Unlike statutes we’ve seen in some other states that restrict access to body camera footage, this legislation does not provide for disclosure even if there’s a public interest at stake. As a result, its passage would ensure that law enforcement officers become less accountable for their actions.
The release of body cam footage can protect both citizens and police officers — a position the Boston Police Department endorsed when it equipped nearly 200 officers with cameras. With an increasing number of departments nationwide already utilizing body cameras, the transparency this technology provides is proving consequential:
Florida officials last July arrested a former deputy sheriff for allegedly planting evidence and making false arrests following an investigation triggered by body camera footage from one such arrest.
Following the fatal shooting of a teen by police last summer in California, body camera footage showed the 17-year-old in a “shooting stance” pointing what appeared to be a handgun at an officer. The footage helped clarify for the public what led to the shooting.
Similar circumstances could occur in Massachusetts. But without the opportunity to obtain body camera footage, false arrests may never be uncovered and police shootings may never be adequately scrutinized. Releasing body camera footage can help maintain trust between police departments and the communities they serve.
The proposed legislation, however, is a misguided attempt to sacrifice that transparency for the sake of privacy. The public records law already provides tools police can use to withhold sensitive information, such as exemptions for individual privacy interests and law enforcement investigations. With its wholesale exclusion of body camera footage from the law, the legislation disregards these tools and prevents the public from receiving any benefits the technology allows.
Passage of the legislation would waste a valuable opportunity and further cement the state’s reputation for secrecy.
This is not a scientific survey. Please only vote once.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.