Sad reality: Law enforcement largely lacks bodycam transparency

August 14, 2019 01:30

Every Friday and Saturday night, several million Americans tune in to the A&E Network show “Live PD.” The show embeds producers and videographers with law enforcement agencies and broadcasts live interactions between law enforcement and the public.

It’s one of several popular police ride-along TV programs, including the long-running “Cops” and at least seven “Live PD” spinoffs.

These shows focus on the most salacious interactions and provide little, if any, context or independent reporting.

These shows aren’t journalism.

Yet “Live PD” often enjoys greater access to law enforcement and – in the case of spinoff “Live PD Cam” – to officers’ body and dash camera footage – than local journalists living in and covering the same communities where the reality show has crews.

In Massachusetts (which is not among the “LivePD” locations) legislation currently pending “would exempt bodycam and dashcam recordings from the definition of ‘public record’ under the Commonwealth’s Public Records Law.”

RTDNA along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), with which RTDNA frequently partners on press freedom issues, and 25 more press freedom groups recently wrote to the leadership of the Massachusetts General Court (or state legislature) Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security urging reconsideration of Section 7 of House Bill 2120.

And Massachusetts isn’t alone. In 12 states, legislation relating to body-worn camera footage is pending.

Laws and regulations regarding access to police footage vary by jurisdiction.
Laws and regulations allowing public access to police body and dash cam video vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some agencies and policymakers are happy to share footage. But far too many law enforcement agencies do not release footage at all.

And it’s difficult for journalists to navigate the interjurisdictional rules and restrictions. There is no one single database that news directors, producers and reporters can rely upon to tell them whether a particular agency makes its body and dash cam footage public.

One useful tool, though, is RCFP’s “Body Worn Camera Legislation and Policy Map,"  which outlines where journalists can access police video, and where they can’t. It is quite comprehensive, but far from complete on a granular level.

 

An area in which the RCFP tool is particularly helpful is telling journalists which states have laws, court rulings, or no statewide regulation of police video at all. According to the map:
  • Seven states have “no laws regarding public access to body-worn camera footage. …However, some states have introduced or passed bills regarding the implementation of [body-worn cameras] that do not directly address the question of whom should have public access.”
  • Twelve states have “legislation regarding public accessibility to body-worn camera footage … proposed, but not yet passed.”
  • The rest have passed laws “regarding public access to body-worn camera footage.”
Footage should be more accessible to journalists, and RTDNA is fighting for that access.
RTDNA, RCFP and the 25 other press freedom groups that wrote on opposition of the legislation pending in Massachusetts believe news media access to police bodycam and dashcam videos is vital. In some cases, this footage is the only source of objective information about law enforcement incidents. Access to police footage can protect both law enforcement and the public and is critical to hold law enforcement accountable.

The letter to Massachusetts legislative leaders cited five incidents in which bodycam video played a crucial role in allowing reporters to bring clarity and context to law enforcement conduct:
 
Bodycam and dashcam videos are a vital—and, in some cases, the only—source of objective information about law enforcement conduct when witness and police statements conflict or do not accurately portray events. The dashcam video of the 2014 shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald, for example, which was ordered released to a member of the news media pursuant to Illinois’s public records law, proved crucial in informing the public about Mr. McDonald’s death at the hands of a Chicago police officer. Accounts of the incident from the police officer, Jason Van Dyke, and his partner were contradicted by the dashcam video, which was a central piece of evidence in Mr. Van Dyke’s ensuing criminal trial, which led to his conviction for second degree murder and aggravated battery.

Bodycam video has likewise played an important role in ensuring law enforcement oversight and accountability. For example, bodycam footage was critical to a recent investigation in which a deputy sheriff in Florida was charged with allegedly planting drugs in the cars of drivers during traffic stops; the investigation resulted in at least 119 cases involving the deputy being dropped.

In Denver, a local TV station used a public records request to obtain bodycam video of an arrest that led to an officer’s discipline for use of excessive force. Contrary to the officer’s statements that he had placed his knee on the suspect’s shoulders, the bodycam video showed his knee had been placed on the suspect’s neck.

News reports relying on bodycam video have also effectively explained police actions to the public when controversy arises. Following a fatal shooting of an individual by police in Washington, D.C., there were conflicting reports about whether the individual had a weapon. The public release of bodycam video from the incident enabled the news media to walk the public through it moment-by-moment, pausing at crucial points to show that the suspect did, in fact, have a knife. In a separate incident in California earlier this month, bodycam video corroborated a police officer’s claim that he shot and killed a 17-year-old woman at a traffic stop after he found her standing in a shooting stance and holding a replica gun.
 
Will these compelling examples sway lawmakers to err on the side of transparency?

Will legislators, judges, local government policymakers, police chiefs and sheriffs around the country understand that the public has a right – and need – to see firsthand how law enforcement is conducting business on their behalf?

Will they agree that law enforcement needs in-depth, expert reporting and context informed by access to police video?

Or will Americans be left only with the sensational “reality” TV spotlight on the soft, seedy underbellies of their communities?
 

 


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