February 25, 2015 5:32PM

Missouri Bill Would Keep Most Police Camera Footage From Public View

One week after it was reported that Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing of Michael Brown, President Obama announced that the federal government would spend $75 million on police body cameras. Wilson was not wearing a body camera when he shot Brown at least six times, and some have reasonably suggested that if Wilson had been wearing a body camera during his interaction with Brown that it would have been easier to determine if Brown's killing was a justified or unjustified use of force.

Police in Missouri were in the news again after recently released dash camera footage revealed that an officer warned colleagues who were arresting a suspect that the camera was live before it was suddenly turned off. Both Brown's killing in August and the footage of the April 2014 arrest highlight not only the fact that body cameras would provide investigators looking into allegations of police misconduct with valuable evidence, but also that there needs to be clear policies in place that relate to police and the cameras they use.

One lawmaker in Missouri proposed legislation that would make law enforcement camera footage policy clearer, but it should worry anyone concerned with law enforcement accountability and transparency.

Missouri State Senator Doug Libla introduced SB 331 at the end of last month. The bill would exempt footage captured by police cameras (whether attached to uniforms or vehicles) from public record requests except "upon order of a court in the course of a criminal investigation or prosecution or civil litigation."

Libla's bill would also ban lawmakers from requiring that law enforcement officers wear body cameras.

Taxpayers deserve to know how the police officers they fund behave. Yet Libla's proposed legislation would make it prohibitively difficult for members of the public to view footage of police officers doing their job. Under Libla’s proposal, footage of serious police misconduct could be released by court order during an investigation.

However, if implemented, the legislation would mean that in cases in which a victim of police abuse or misconduct is unwilling or unable to sue or press criminal charges, the relevant body camera footage would not be made public. Suing the government is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor with no guarantee of success. Many people who live paycheck to paycheck simply cannot afford a lawyer’s retainer for several thousand dollars to just get into the courtroom to ask for the video to be released.  

A good police body camera policy is one that places greater burden on law enforcement officials, not the public, when it comes to the release of footage. At the very least, a member of the public should have access to any footage of his own encounter with police whether on the street, during a traffic stop, or at his residence, upon filing a formal complaint. A better policy would allow a person to access to any recorded interaction to which he is a party without a formal complaint, barring compelling interest to be shown by the government.

There is, of course, footage of police encounters that should be withheld from the public. For instance, given the potential for privacy violations, it would be inappropriate for members of the public to have access to police body camera footage of the interior of people's homes. But police body camera footage that captures ordinary police interactions with the public and which does not compromise an ongoing investigation or a citizen's privacy should be made available.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials ought to be aware that many Americans do not have much confidence in police. Polling from Gallup shows that last year 53 percent of respondents claimed that they either had a "Great Deal" or "Quite a Lot" of confidence in the police, the lowest percentage of respondents since 1993. Other polling from Gallup shows that the lack of confidence in police is especially low among non-Hispanic blacks, only 34 percent of whom claim that they have a "Great Deal" or "Quite a Lot" of confidence in the police compared to 61 percent of non-Hispanic whites. 

Body cameras will not solve every problem that police departments have relating to community relations and trust. However, with a policy in place that allows members of the public to view police body camera footage, law enforcement officials will be able to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability. There may also be other effects that would benefit communities. Indeed, some evidence suggests that outfitting police officers with body cameras significantly decreases the number of police use-of-force incidents.

An increasing number of lawmakers will be crafting police body camera policies in the coming years. Let's hope that none of them use Libla's bill as some sort of template.