Here at The Watch, we’ve emphasized over and over that the public benefit to outfitting cops with body cameras will only be as good as the rules governing their use. Unfortunately, many state legislators and policymakers are reacting to the “war on cops” narrative by giving all the control to police agencies. That isn’t a recipe for accountability.
North Carolina, for example, passed legislation last year excluding body camera video from the public record, so footage is not available through North Carolina’s Public Records Act. That means civilians have no right to view police recordings in the Tar Heel state unless their voice or image was captured in the video.
Louisiana also exempts body camera video from public records laws.
South Carolina will only release body camera footage to criminal defendants and the subjects of recordings.
Kansas classifies body camera video as “criminal investigation documents” available only when investigations are closed . . .
In Pennsylvania, the state Senate recently passed Senate bill 560, which would mirror North Carolina’s opaqueness, and allow police to record inside civilian homes without restriction. It just passed the state House.
In Massachusetts, bill S. 1307 would mandate that body camera video “be kept confidential absent a court order.” It has been referred to the state Senate’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Arkansas legislators made a smart decision by letting HB 1248 — a bill that would have made body camera video a “confidential record” — die in the state house, at least for now. If Arkansas residents — and citizens all over the country — don’t pay attention, it’s likely that bills like this one will reemerge. Then not only will body camera footage strengthen the surveillance state and fuel facial recognition and predictive policing systems, it’ll also be impossible for civilians to view it — which, for civilians, is the primary reason body cameras made sense in the first place.
At the same time, the New York Times recently reported that some police agencies have been preemptively releasing footage that depicts police officers performing brave and heroic deeds. That’s fine. They should. But once you have policies that let law enforcement agencies highlight their best while essentially barring the press and watchdogs from holding accountable their worst, a promising transparency tool becomes little more than a tool for propaganda. And that isn’t going to win much trust between cops and the communities they serve.