Last week, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced legislation that would create a pilot grant program to assist state and local police agencies in leasing or purchasing body-worn cameras. The bill requires states, “units of local government,” and Indian tribes wishing to receive a full grant to commit to a range of reforms related to privacy, police practice, and data storage.
The bill presents something of a dilemma for libertarians like me, who want increased accountability and transparency within law enforcement but are also hesitant to support federal policy prescriptions for issues such as policing, which are often best handled at the local level. Given the worrying body camera legislation that has been proposed by some state lawmakers, it is tempting to think that a conditional federal police body camera grant program might be the best way to ensure that local government agencies implement worthwhile body camera policies. Yet Paul and Schatz’s legislation shows that police body camera policy ought to be addressed at the state and local level.
This is not to say that the legislation does not contain some good policy requirements. If the bill were to be enacted as written, an entity (state, unit of local government, or Indian tribe) interested in receiving a full grant would have to demonstrate a commitment to implementing some sensible policies before officers use the body cameras.
Among those policies is the development of public regulations and protocols relating to the use of body cameras, the storage of body camera footage, and the protection of the privacy rights of individuals recorded by body cameras. This is an important requirement. As the ACLU discovered last year, some law enforcement agencies do not have body camera policies, and some of those that do choose not to release them.
Yet while the legislation does make committing to publishing policies related to the release of body camera footage a condition for receipt of a full grant, it does not require that these policies advance transparency and accountability. The legislation only requires that a requesting entity develop and publish policies for “the release of any data collected by a body-worn camera in accordance with the open records laws, if any, of the State” (my bolding).
This is worrisome considering that, according to the AP, “Lawmakers in nearly a third of the states have introduced bills to restrict public access to recordings from police officer-worn body cameras.” Some of these bills, such as Michigan’s HB 4234 and Florida’s SB 248, aim to protect citizens from privacy violations by exempting police body camera footage of the interior of private homes from disclosure. SB 248 extends this protection to footage captured at the site of medical emergencies and on the property of social service, mental health, and health care facilities. However, other legislation such as North Dakota’s HB 1264, which has been passed by the North Dakota House and Senate, and New Hampshire’s HB 617 would make police body camera footage exempt from public record requests, though HB 617 would allow for citizens who pay for the recording to access body camera footage in which they can be seen or heard. (HB 617 would also require state police to use body cameras and to record all interactions with the public).
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