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State bills would limit access to police body camera videos

West Valley City patrol officer Gatrell performed a traffic stop on the first day of use of his newly-issued body camera.
West Valley City patrol officer Gatrell performed a traffic stop on the first day of use of his newly-issued body camera.George Frey/Getty Images

IOWA CITY — State legislators across the country are pushing to make it much harder for the public to obtain police officer body camera videos, undermining their promise as a tool people can use to hold law enforcement accountable.

Lawmakers in at least 16 states have introduced bills to exempt video recordings of police encounters with citizens from state public records laws, or to limit what can be made public. Their stated motive: preserving the privacy of people being videotaped, and saving considerable time and money that would need to be spent on public information requests as the technology quickly becomes widely used.

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Advocates for open government and civil rights are alarmed.

Police departments nationwide are already spending millions to outfit officers with cameras and archive the results. In this latest clash between the people's right to know and government authority, the responsibility to record encounters, retain copies, and decide what to make public mostly rests with the same police.

In the absence of public records protections, these police decisions can be unilateral and final in many cases.

''It undercuts the whole purpose of the cameras,'' said Michelle Richardson, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Supporters say the privacy rights of crime victims and witnesses need protecting, and that police need to limit the broad and costly public records requests they are getting. Routinely releasing these videos will deter people from calling for help and cooperating with police, they say.

''Public safety trumps transparency,'' said Kansas state Senator Greg Smith, a Republican. ''It's not trying to hide something. It's making sure we're not releasing information that's going to get other people hurt.''

The states considering laws limiting access to police recordings are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

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In New Hampshire, a pending House bill would exempt video and audio recordings made by a uniformed law enforcement officer from the state's right-to-know law.

The Kansas Senate voted, 40 to 0, last month to exempt the recordings from the state's open records act. Police would have to release them only to people who are the subject of the recordings and their representatives.

In Minnesota, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Friday that would deem most recordings off-limits to the general public, except when an officer uses a dangerous weapon or causes bodily harm.

Most proposals would generally grant access to the people being recorded. Existing state disclosure laws often provide exemptions for ongoing criminal and personnel investigations. Open government advocates say the privacy challenges of body camera videos can be addressed within those laws.

The White House, through a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, suggested new limits, despite President Obama's vow the videos would improve transparency in policing.

The task force warned that releasing videos showing use of force, ''even when lawful and appropriate,'' can undermine trust in police, and that images showing minors and graphic events raise concerns.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said the civil rights organization he leads, the National Action Network, is gearing up to oppose the public access restrictions in legislative hearings and courts. He said the adoption of cameras as a check on police conduct was a significant victory for protests that followed officer-involved deaths last year in New York and Ferguson, Mo.

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In Ferguson, the city's municipal court held its first session since a Department of Justice report found the city operated a profit-driven system that heightened tensions among black residents. Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter presided over the night session in an unprecedented move ordered by the state Supreme Court days after the federal report was released.

The abuses of the municipal justice system and a pattern of discrimination against black residents by Ferguson police allegedly went on for years before the fatal shooting of a black, unarmed teen by a white police officer last summer.

A bill approved by Arizona's Senate this month would strip the public's ability to review ''the most reliable, contemporaneous records'' of police conduct, Phoenix lawyer David Bodney said.

Its sponsor, Arizona Republican Senator John Kavanagh, said that without such protections, unscrupulous website operators could post compromising videos of people and extort payments to remove them.

Florida's legislation says body camera recordings could ''be used for criminal purposes if they were available upon request,'' and exempts places where people have a ''reasonable expectation of privacy.''

A bill in Washington state, approved in a House committee, requires people who don't appear in videos to get a court order to see them. Otherwise, said Representative Drew Hansen, a Democrat, the public records law would permit ''broad distribution of very, very intimate, sensitive footage.''