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Late last month, The New York Times published a piece, headlined “Hollywood-Style Heroism Is Latest Trend in Police Videos,” about body camera footage that depicts police officers as paragons of bravery. One video, from the Hamden Police Department in Connecticut, showed an officer pulling a troubled man away from the edge of a building. Another, from the Topeka Police Department in Kansas, showed an officer rescuing a drowning boy from a pond. These videos were not released at the request of journalists or civilians hoping to shed light on police activity. They were instead released by police employees as counter programming — a way to characterize cops positively when tales of “bad apples” overtook the news cycle. “The chief talked to me about how Topeka was really getting beat up in the news with some shootings, some homicides,” an officer told the Times. “Topeka really needed a good story.”
Cops deserve credit when they do good, but these positive police videos emerge as states work to keep less flattering videos hidden.
North Carolina, for example, passed legislation last year excluding body camera video from the public record, so footage is not available through North Carolina’s Public Records Act. That means civilians have no right to view police recordings in the Tar Heel state unless their voice or image was captured in the video.
Louisiana also exempts body camera video from public records laws.
South Carolina will only release body camera footage to criminal defendants and the subjects of recordings.
Kansas classifies body camera video as “criminal investigation documents” available only when investigations are closed. The Topeka Police Department may have wanted positive public relations with the release of its pond rescue video, but if a news outlet had requested that video through Kansas’ Open Records Act, that request would’ve likely been denied.
This opaque state of affairs was not how body cameras were originally pitched. Body cameras have been available to police since at least 2007 when Steve Ward, a salesman for Taser International, broke off from the company, now known as Axon Enterprise. He then formed his own body camera company, Vievu. But body cameras weren’t considered a necessary police tool until the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
As people around the world tried to piece together what occurred in Ferguson between a dead man and a living officer, civilians and police alike began to understand the benefits of body cameras. Representatives of Black Lives Matter called for more body cameras alongside major police organizations. It was a virtually unanimous agreement at first: body cams would hold both police and civilians accountable. But there was a pact underlying those mutual calls — a tacit agreement that taxpayer-purchased body camera videos should be available to taxpayers.
That pact was best explained by police leaders themselves. In a 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum, the group’s executive director, Chuck Wexler, wrote that “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”
The report, released by one of the most respected law enforcement groups in the world, made it clear that body cameras could help police leaders build trust with the communities they served by documenting both the good and the bad. Flattering videos would have to be released along with unflattering ones, videos that exonerated cops along with videos that forced indictments. Transparency was worth it for everyone: civilians would be on camera if they failed to behave themselves in front of cops, and cops would be on camera if they did anything illegal or potentially criminal.
For a while, the rules governing how this would work — how police departments would build policies to let the public view videos and feel comfortable about having a bunch of cops act as roving surveillance cameras — were written by local legislators governing cities. There were good policies and bad, with some cities making it easier than others for civilians to obtain police video. (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the tech policy group Upturn created a helpful policy scorecard to track which cities were doing what.) But as more police departments spent millions of dollars on body cameras and video storage, police unions, district attorney associations, and other law enforcement lobbying groups began to push for statewide laws restricting transparency. North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Kansas, among others, have now instituted counter-transparency body camera laws. Even Missouri — home of Ferguson — classified body camera footage as a “closed record.” If another shooting like the one in Ferguson occurred, and the shooting officer was wearing a body camera, it’s almost certain the footage would be withheld from the public until after a trial.
Other states are now also looking to make body cam video extremely difficult to obtain.
In Pennsylvania, the state Senate recently passed Senate bill 560, which would mirror North Carolina’s opaqueness, and allow police to record inside civilian homes without restriction. It just passed the state House.
In Massachusetts, bill S. 1307 would mandate that body camera video “be kept confidential absent a court order.” It has been referred to the state Senate’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Arkansas legislators made a smart decision by letting HB 1248 — a bill that would have made body camera video a “confidential record” — die in the state house, at least for now. If Arkansas residents — and citizens all over the country — don’t pay attention, it’s likely that bills like this one will reemerge. Then not only will body camera footage strengthen the surveillance state and fuel facial recognition and predictive policing systems, it’ll also be impossible for civilians to view it — which, for civilians, is the primary reason body cameras made sense in the first place.
It’s nice that body cameras have given police the opportunity to show the public when officers act heroically, but that’s not their core function. Their core function is to monitor police activity, and to provide public documentation when it’s needed. If that documentation shows police in a positive light, that’s wonderful — let it be known. But police departments shouldn’t be able to push out positive footage while burying the negative. As much as police might like to think otherwise, there are plenty of “bad apples” working inside the nation’s 18,000-plus police departments. Body camera footage should help to remove some of them from the bunch.
All over the country, state legislatures are making that difficult as they push to shield body camera footage from public records laws. That push may set up further opportunities for police departments in Hamden, Topeka, and elsewhere to tell “a good story” about their officers instead of a bad one. But for the public, the larger story isn’t a good one at all.