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SPJ: Common-sense approach should be used in body-worn camera recordings, public records laws


May 28, 2015

Dana Neuts, SPJ National President, 360-920-1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
David Cuillier, SPJ FOI Committee Chair, 520-248-6242 (MST), spjdave@yahoo.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – In the past year, several deadly interactions between police and unarmed civilians have prompted law enforcement agencies nationwide to equip patrol officers with body-worn video cameras. Police and lawmakers hope use of cameras will improve interactions between officers and civilians, assist investigations of crimes and officer misconduct, and improve public trust of law enforcement officers.

The issue of concern to the Society of Professional Journalists is whether, and to what extent, body-worn camera video will be accessible to the public. That question has evoked vastly different responses from officials across the country – ranging from a release on YouTube of low-resolution versions of all recordings by the Seattle Police Department, to a blanket Freedom of Information Act exemption proposed by the mayor of Washington, D.C.

Use of body-worn cameras poses thorny questions for police departments and legislators at the state and local levels. These include when cameras will be turned on, circumstances under which they may be turned off, how long to keep recordings, and the purposes for which BWC video may be used.

SPJ understands that public disclosure of BWC video may implicate privacy rights of individuals with whom officers interact, particularly when encounters occur in private places. We understand that in some cases there will be valid investigatory reasons to keep BWC recordings secret. We understand that disclosing BWC recordings under public records laws will require police to devote resources to review and redact some recordings.

If the goal is to improve public trust in the police, denying the public access is likely to accomplish the opposite. If the goal is to protect privacy or the integrity of criminal investigations, state and local open records laws already include effective exemptions. If the goal is to reduce the cost of FOIA compliance, we might as well give up any pretense of government transparency.

Exempting BWC videos from disclosure will foster distrust because police still could release BWC recordings that portray officers in a good light or counter allegations of misconduct. If, in response to FOIA requests, police cite an exemption to withhold video, many in the community will assume the worst — that officers have something to hide.

Secrecy advocates express fear that many requests will come from neighborhood busy bodies and voyeurs seeking to invade their neighbors’ privacy. But those fears are unfounded. Body-worn cameras are new, but they are not unique. Police have used CCTV and dashboard cameras for a decade or more, and law enforcement agencies have not been overwhelmed with malevolent requests for those videos.

Giving police the ability to release video to suit their interests, but to invoke an FOIA exemption to deny the importance of a requester’s interest, sends a pretty clear and undesirable message — that the goal of the BWC program is to protect law enforcement agencies, not to build public trust.

To read more about SPJ’s stance on body-worn cameras, read Robert Becker’s guest blog post on SPJ’s FOI Committee blog, FOI FYI.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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