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States consider police body cameras after civilian deaths

Bills aim to curb excessive force, racial profiling

WASHINGTON — More than a dozen states are considering new legislation aimed at increasing police accountability after incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Cleveland that left unarmed black men dead at the hands of officers.

Dozens of bills addressing body cameras for police have been filed in at least 13 states. Other proposed measures would change the way police departments report officer-involved shootings, racial profiling, and the way courts deal with low-level offenders.

‘‘There is a concrete, coherent legislative agenda that we are pushing for,’’ said Cornell Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP. ‘‘We’ve been doing this from state capital to state capital, as well as here in Washington, D.C.’’


Some of the proposed responses have bipartisan support. In other cases, familiar partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats, and civil rights groups and police organizations, are emerging and slowing legislative action.

Those partisan fissures are exacerbated by events beyond Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland. In Springfield, Mo., a police officer was shot in the head while on patrol; he suffered career-ending injuries.

‘‘Our citizens deserve to be and feel safe, and our law enforcement deserve our respect and support,’’ said Missouri Representative Lincoln Hough, Republican. ‘‘I say all that to illustrate the complexity of these issues. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue.’’

Brooks and other civil rights leaders have vowed 2015 will be a year of legislative strategy, pressuring state houses to pass laws on special prosecutors and grand juries while pushing for legislative steps in Washington.

Body camera acts are at the forefront of that push. Groups like the NAACP, The Advancement Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union are behind many of the body camera proposals, and the Obama administration has allocated $263 million for a three-year program to expand training for local police departments, including $75 million that would purchase 50,000 cameras through a matching program.


‘‘We’re seeing a lot of discussion about body cameras for police officers, both on the national level and in the states,’’ Denise Lieberman of The Advancement Project said.

The exact contours of body camera bills are different in each state. Richard Williams, a criminal justice policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states are determining which officers will have to wear body cameras, when recording will be required, and how to square recording policies with eavesdropping laws that require permission from both parties and the Fourth Amendment.

But even with those details yet to be worked out, body camera legislation is the response to the police incidents most likely to be successful. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support body camera bills, and police unions and officers back cameras, too, William Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations said.

Lawmakers in California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have already filed or prefiled measures that would require at least some law enforcement officials to wear body cameras, according to Williams’s tally.

In Missouri, tensions remain high after the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson in the summer.