Police body camera programs show signs of growing pains

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Thursday exempting certain police body camera video from public record laws.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Chris Smith, R-Ft. Lauderdale, will be used to shield video footage captured by officers while in homes, hospitals, mental health institutions and other places, The Miami Herald reported.

The law could offer a reasonable expectation of privacy as the use of body-worn cameras increases in police departments across the country.

Even in states where there is no legislation dictating when and where video can and should be released, several police departments have exercised discretion when releasing body camera footage.

Some departments have withheld video for long periods of time and others have even been accused of altering or deleting footage before releasing to the public, as was the case in Seattle a few months ago when the Seattle Police Department posted redacted body camera footage from the Jan. 19 Martin Luther King Jr. protest. The event yielded several accusations of police misconduct. One involved a man being pepper sprayed by an officer after he walked in front of her while talking on his phone.

The American Civil Liberties Union put together a list of guidelines – a model bill – for police departments the group feels is lacking in certain rules and penalties regarding body-worn cameras, The Washington Times reported.

“[W]ithout the proper policies in place, the widespread deployment of police body cameras could do more harm than good,” the ACLU’s Chad Marlow said in a statement Thursday. “If body cameras are used to cast a net of roving surveillance over communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, they will cause harm.”

To release body camera footage “en masse” with no discretion or consideration for those captured on video is a violation of privacy, said Marlow, who likened the scenario to TV shows TMZ and COPS.

Marlow chided the Los Angeles Police Department and its body camera policy, which suggests to its officers when they should and should not turn the camera on, something Marlow claims “undercuts the goal of promoting transparency by hiding virtually all body camera footage away from the public.”      

So what about officer-involved shootings where someone is killed? Privacy often trumps transparency, as one Los Angeles Times report pointed out.

The city of Gardena, California, reportedly agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle a lawsuit over a police shooting death of an unarmed man.

The department reportedly came under fire when it revealed investigators had reviewed the body camera footage and cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, but refused to release the video citing privacy of officers and the possibility that doing so could interfere with investigations.

Possibly forced by an increasing scrutiny of police, law enforcement agencies across the country have turned to body camera technology and there’s no shortage of video backing claims of police misconduct.

Liberal publication Mother Jones compiled 13 of some of the most graphic encounters ending in officers killing suspects.