Connecting state and local government leaders
A new report examines how municipalities are navigating state laws regarding the technology, or lack thereof, as many law enforcement agencies attempt to boost transparency.
The national shift toward police-worn body cameras, both to curb use of force incidents and improve departmental transparency, hasn’t moved public officials in Boston just yet.
Most states either passed or are in various stages of debating police body camera footage legislation, and most major U.S. cities have pilot programs testing the equipment, according to a new, comprehensive D.C. Open Government Coalition report.
But Boston’s police commissioner and mayor, as well as Massachusetts’ governor, “proved completely unwilling to consider the implementation of body camera systems,” DCOGC reports.
“As we were preparing testimony for a hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary of the Council of the District of Columbia, we realized that we might benefit from seeing how other states and large cities had approached the issue and whether any trends or even best practices were emerging,” President Kevin M. Goldberg said in an announcement.
DCOGC had its lawyers research the issue and published the final product to GitHub on Monday, so information can be publicly updated as state and local body camera policies evolve.
Approaches are by no means uniform: nine states passed body camera laws, two have legislation on their governors’ desks, 25 have debated or are debating legislation, one—Kentucky—had a body camera records retention schedule set by its State Archives and Records Commission, and 13 have never seen proposals in their legislatures or administrative bodies.
Half of states have proposed legislation on video collection, ranging from proposals that let local law enforcement craft its own policies to ones requiring that almost all police incidents be recorded. Typical exceptions are when cops are in their squad car; with confidential informants; caretaking in the community; or asked to turn their cameras off by victims, witnesses or homeowners on non-emergency calls.
Letting departments form their own video retention policies tends “to result in police-friendly provisions,” DCOGC reports, though most states have specific timelines allowing storage up to three years when excessive force is suspected or a death occurred.
Five states have blanket prohibitions on acquiring police body camera footage via public records request, while a few proposals would make the videos open records if approved. Officials often want body camera footage withheld when it violates privacy, jeopardizes police investigations, displays graphic material or reveals a person’s medical history.
Even absent state laws, local police departments are buying their own body cameras and making their own policies.
DCOGC surveyed 15 major U.S. cities from New York City to Los Angeles and found 12 have pilot body camera programs to “develop workable policies for wider implementation,” five approved large-scale purchase of more than 500 body cameras and three have proposed body cameras as a budget item.
The Seattle Police Department releases all body camera videos, after redaction, to YouTube while San Diego treats them all as evidence, but the trend is toward recording more rather than less footage.
Per the DCOGC report:
While state-level policies likely are going to control the conversation going forward, decisions occurring at the local level are distinct for two reasons. First, many municipal proposals and policies are being developed and enacted at a much faster pace than their state counterparts. Second, the interplay between local and state officials on this issue has created an environment where some cities have attempted to craft a model policy to anticipate and guide statewide debate.
The Boston Police Department is slated to be briefed on body cameras in early August, WWLP reports, but city officials have gone on record saying they worry the technology could damage inroads cops have made with minority communities.
“No one’s going to want to approach us any more and say, ‘Hey, they’re dealing drugs over there,’ or, ‘Hey, I got a tip on that shooting,’ because they’re afraid they’re going to be on video,” Police Commissioner William Evans told WBZ in December.
Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.