How Police Use of Body Camera Footage Has Evolved

FILE - In this Marc, ... ]

FILE - In this Marc, ... ] Elaine Thompson / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

Evidence-based policies are up, but there’s room for improvement, according to the Urban Institute.

More and more states are legislating when the public can view videos captured by police body cameras, with 16 states passing new laws since January 2017, according to new Urban Institute tracking.

Another 12 states have legislation pending that would control key aspects of body camera use.

Beginning in 2016, states like Ohio and Nebraska established pilots and commissions to test body cameras and figure out how best to regulate them—and multiple efforts are coming to fruition this year with the rollout of statewide standards.

“More legislation is more narrowly prescriptive of who and under what circumstances footage is actually captured,” Nancy La Vigne, vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute, told Route Fifty.

Without a federal framework dictating when body camera footage should be considered public record, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have at least considered questions of access.

North Carolina exempts all body camera footage from public records requests, but other states are more selective in their restrictions. More often, states exempt police from such requests if they’re protecting active investigations, public safety or national security by doing so—New Hampshire being the only state with no such legislation on the books or under consideration.

Washington state recently exempted footage containing information used in the discipline of a police officer, while Michigan did the same for footage connected to both criminal or internal investigations.

A total of nine states restrict recordings where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy” like in homes and sometimes schools. Utah expanded privacy restrictions to hospitals, human services programs and mental care facilities. Vulnerable people such as victims of sex crimes or domestic abuse and minors have also been protected in Tennessee, Kentucky and Washington.

“Generally what we’re seeing is protected classes of people,” La Vigne said.

Increasingly states are grappling with the right to review footage of, say, family members of loved ones whose deaths were captured on camera.

Three states—Arizona, Florida and Texas—and Washington, D.C. allow law enforcement personnel to access body camera footage before releasing statements or writing reports about an officer-involved shooting, which has come under fire from civil rights groups.

“Some unions fiercely negotiate the right of the officer to view footage prior to releasing a statement of how events transpired,” La Vigne said.

People in policy circles are currently discussing the benefits of taking two statements, one before and another after viewing the footage, she added.

Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon require local police departments to develop their own written body camera policies, and in many states such agencies wield “considerable discretion,” according to Urban Institute findings.

Five years ago, most law enforcement agencies wanted body cameras, La Vigne said, but when Urban Institute last updated its legislation tracker in January 2017, some were backing away because of the costs of storing and redacting footage to comply with public records laws.

Now there’s a “CSI effect,” where “people expect the cameras to be capturing things they may not be,” she added.

“It’s my observation that law enforcement is more circumspect about the technology than it was four or five years ago,” La Vigne said. “The public has come to expect transparency with body cameras.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: No Breathalyzer for the Stoned? Maybe That’s OK.