Body Cam Footage Should Be Public, Activists Say

After numerous violent incidents involving police were recorded by citizens and made public in recent months, support grew around the country for police to be outfitted with body cameras. But how footage from those cameras should be diffused to the public has proven a tricky issue with few easy answers.

In Florida, a new law to regulate the use of footage from police body cameras went into effect July 1. SB 248 makes video taken by police body cameras on private property—like residences or medical facilities—exempt from disclosure. Within the context of Florida’s proud public records laws, some feel the new body cam footage exemptions are “overbroad,” too often shielding videos from public records requests.

“The exemptions create unwarranted restrictions on the public’s right of access,” says Barbara Petersen, the president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. “Exemption defeats the purpose of body camera videos, or the use of body cameras by law enforcement.“

According to the new law, a body camera recording is public record, except when it is taken “within the interior of a private residence; taken within the interior of a facility that offers health care, mental health care, or social services; or taken in a place that a reasonable person would expect to be private.” Then, it is confidential and exempt.

Petersen says the last exemption, especially, is overly vague.

“So do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy when you’re sitting in a park?” Petersen asks. “The law allows law enforcement to release those videos only when they want to.”

As the bill awaited Governor Scott’s signature in May, Petersen wrote a letter to Scott on behalf of the First Amendment Foundation calling for his veto. She suggested requiring local law enforcement agencies, instead of the state legislature, to adopt policies about the use of body cameras by their officers. But as expected, Scott signed the bill into law. 

Carlos Miller, a photojournalist and founder of the website Photography is Not a Crime, says the public should support efforts that protect people’s right to privacy, and he applauds the law’s effort to try to do so. But he agrees with Petersen that Florida’s new law leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

“What if cops bust into your home and hurt you for no reason?” he says. “Should I have the right to access that? Should that be public record? And what if the person involved in the incident dies, is in the hospital, or in jail, and doesn’t have access to a lawyer? We’re told by people on the witness stand that this is wrong but we can’t access this footage? That doesn’t seem right.”

He also takes issue with a portion of the law that says cops can destroy body camera footage after 90 days.

“That is very convenient for [law enforcement] if they unlawfully arrest somebody who ends up staying in jail for more than 90 days,” Miller says.

Floridians should understand the new law and exemptions, he says, and continue the conversation about how to best balance public access with the right to privacy. 

“The national media has realized we have a problem with police,” he says. “We can’t continue acting like we’re back in the old days, but we’re definitely learning as we go.” 
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Jessica Weiss