Body cameras have become democratized, for lack of a better word. They’re relatively cheap, easy to use and can be deployed with minimal setup. They hold the promise of increased transparency and accountability, but legislators seem far more interested in ensuring the new technology will have zero net positive effects.
Four Indiana legislators — two of them former law enforcement officers — have introduced a bill that will keep the public out of the loop as far as body camera footage is concerned.
A newly proposed Indiana bill would allow police departments to decide whether to release video footage captured on body-worn or dashboard cameras to the general public.
House Bill 1019 immediately drew criticism from the Hoosier State Press Association, which argued the bill could undermine the purpose of such cameras in the first place: to increase police transparency and allow the public to hold law enforcement accountable.
The proposed legislation would compel police departments to show recordings of law enforcement actions only to either the person depicted in the video or that person’s relatives or attorney. For anyone else, the decision to release is up to the department.
Leaving the decision to the discretion of law enforcement agencies does nothing but encourage the burial of any footage that doesn’t show officers in the best light. Sure, there’s a remedy, but it’s not an affordable option. The final decision by law enforcement agencies can be challenged, but only if the requester is willing to put a lot of time and money on the line.
Should the agency say no, the bill says, the person requesting the video would have to take the department to court and argue for the video’s release.
The legislators behind this bill know exactly what sort of opacity this will encourage. They cannot be that ignorant. They’re just playing to their most powerful constituents — especially the two who were officers before they were officials.
Other supporters of the bill likely know the intended side effects of the legislation as well, but they’ve decided it’s more important to “protect” the police from the public, rather than the other way around. This particularly disingenuous statement from a supportive lawmaker pays the most minimum of lip service to the public’s privacy concerns before going all #bluelivesmatter.
Rep. Wendy McNamara, an Evansville Republican, questioned whether the public or media should have access to footage that could potentially compromise the privacy of a person shown in the video, such as a witness to a crime.
“Which becomes more important?” she asked. “The privacy aspect of the individuals involved in the situation, or the public’s need to, you know, hang a rope around peoples’ necks at the jump of a video?
The “people” she’s referring to, of course, are the ones with extra rights and vast amounts of power. Those are the “people” who need to be saved from the big bad Public, who apparently just want to see law enforcement officers hang for their perceived sins — a desire that wouldn’t be so intense if law enforcement agencies performed more “hangings” of their own.
The bill may be altered en route to the governor’s desk, but with this type of support behind it, it’s likely the legislation will still err on the side of protecting law enforcement. One suggested fix is nothing more than shifting the burden of proof for refusals to the agency denying the request, which would greatly decrease the chance that an expensive lawsuit will be the only route to full disclosure.
While the person shown in the footage can view the video, the bill does not also require the department to give them a copy. That decision is up to the department.
This means those filing abuse or misconduct complaints could be denied access to their own copy of the footage of the incident in question. The accused agency would still have complete control over the footage, making it extremely difficult for accusers to back up their assertions.
There’s no excuse for this sort of legislation. The supporters claim to be concerned about protecting the public from its own prying eyes, but they’re really only interested in shielding public servants from the people they serve.