Public must have presumptive access to police actions, bodycam footage

  • Oct 20, 2016

Senate Bill 976 would permit law enforcement officials to use body cameras with audio and video recording, with no public access or accountability. The bill passed the Senate with a 45-5 vote on Oct. 19, 2016, and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. It contains a blanket prohibition against release of body camera footage under the Right to Know Law, a broad presumption against access in 976 itself, and requires those seeking access to pursue an expensive and unreasonable court process.  SB976 fosters police secrecy, and by extension, public mistrust.  It represents a substantial step backward in government transparency in Pennsylvania.

Action Needed: Contact members of the House of Representatives to voice your opposition to this misguided legislation. Find your Representative here. In addition, we urge you to editorialize against SB 976.

  • The purpose of body camera footage is to promote greater transparency and foster a better understanding of law enforcement’s interaction with the public.  It creates an objective record and a greater understanding of law enforcement-civilian interactions, leading both to increased public awareness of police conduct and improvements in police-community relations. 
  • To meet the goal of promoting accountability and transparency, body camera audio and video footage must be presumptively accessible. To enact a contrary policy would defeat the purpose of collecting the body camera footage in the first place and would foster community concerns and mistrust regarding law enforcement accountability.
  • This week, Business Insider wrote about CrimeReports, a service that makes it easy for law enforcement to share redacted police bodycam footage for public viewing.  The product is already in use in more than 1,100 police departments across the country.  
  • Indeed, other states are embracing the public accountability that can be offered through body camera footage, recognizing that providing accurate information about interactions between the police and the public leads to a better understanding of police actions and better relations between police and their communities.  On numerous occasions, in Pennsylvania and nationally, public access to video footage of interactions between police and civilians has promoted accountability and calmed community concerns about those interactions.
  • Instead of allowing presumptive access to bodycam footage, SB 976 allows police to withhold the footage in virtually all circumstances, and creates a multi-layered request process that involves an initial written request to law enforcement and a subsequent petition the Court of Common Pleas, which requires, among other things, a $250.00 filing fee. 
  • Many police/public interactions occur on public roads or other public settings, and are open and available to anyone at the scene, including an observer recording the interaction on a personal device. As a result, ordinary citizens are capturing interactions between individuals and the police every day, often posting portions of these interactions publicly.  The ‘official’ version of these interactions must be public as well. 
  • There will be circumstances where privacy interests should be considered, and those can be handled through appropriate statutory language and redactions. However, a blanket prohibition against release of body camera footage is contrary to both public and law enforcement interests. 
  • Body cam footage must be used to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the public, and to help build trust between police and their communities.  This can only occur if the public has access to the footage. 

 

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