Around the time most states and law enforcement agencies are pushing for more transparency, the Florida Senate is proposing a law that would keep police body camera video from the public.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that critics of the move are stating that the public would be kept even more in the dark in situations where the police may or may not have used excessive force.
“The whole purpose of these body camera records is to reassure the public and also to protect the officers from unwarranted accusations,” said Barbara Petersen, Executive Director of the First Amendment Foundation.
Several law enforcement departments in Florida have started utilizing body cameras so that they can protect their officers from false accusations of excessive force. Typically, videos taken by bystanders with their cell phones don’t always show the full version of the incident.
Senator Chris Smith said the proposed law would exempt the videos from state open records in the cases in which they are recorded in private areas, involve deaths or record medical emergencies. He said the attempt was not to thwart transparency, but to eliminate barriers in communication between police and witnesses.
He said he wants to make it harder for “third parties” to obtain video so people aren’t discouraged from cooperating with police who are wearing body cameras. Smith’s ultimate goal is to encourage police to wear cameras.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the legislation allows agencies and the people captured on film by police to decide who has access to body camera video. Anyone else would have to get a court order.
“If a person is a victim of police brutality, why would that person not release a video?” Smith asked. “On that one, I’m still trying to find what the big problem is.”
Petersen is concerned that the bill could block video evidence in all police-involved shootings and other excessive force cases from public scrutiny because such incidents are medical emergencies. The bill provides a list of exemptions that she says are overly broad.
“These are all so big we could drive a truck through them,” Petersen said.
In a statement Monday, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said he supports Smith’s legislation.
“He has crafted language that balances the public’s ability to be videoed in what a reasonable person would believe is a public place and has protected the privacy rights of citizens,” he said. “The body-worn camera should be used as a tool of evidence.”
The Sheriff’s Office has outfitted all of its deputies with cameras. When he made the decision to incorporate the technology, Nocco announced that transparency was one of the main reasons.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, this year around 30 state legislatures are considering bills related to body cameras. Some plans are for the launch of the use of the cameras or required training for officers