Video from police body cameras would not be subject to Freedom of Information laws if a bill passes the legislature.
Police departments around the country are investing in body cameras in light of cases like Michael Brown in Ferguson and Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Video footage from these incidents and others shed light on police actions.
Advocates for body cameras believe they help hold police officers accountable. This isn’t surprising considering the number of stories of police brutality and corruption in recent months and years. Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IoC) published the first full scientific study of an experiment conducted in Rialto, California in 2012. During the 12 month experiment, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59% and reports against officers dropped 87% compared to the previous year’s figures.
If House Bill 1019 passes, it will also affect dashboard cameras. The bill proposed by the Indiana legislature would give police departments the option of withholding video footage.
“Somebody may not want that video released to the public,” said Chief Jason Dombkowski of the West Lafayette Police Department. His offers have been using body cameras for two years and he has been called on to testify on the issue before Indiana state legislative committees. He says privacy is a real concern.
“Family pictures, the layout of somebody’s home, people having maybe their worst day and that being on video and maybe accessed by members of the public or media.”
“This pretty much starts off with, yes, you can keep everything secret and the public has to argue for it to be made available,” said Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.
This means people would have to sue police departments to release video, and a judge would make the final decision. Even if the individuals win a lawsuit, under the proposed law, legal expenses would not be reimbursed. This could make freedom very expensive, or too expensive for those that cannot afford such expenses.
“All the cards are dealt towards keeping it secret, unless for the police department it exonerates their officer, then they’ll say, ‘OK, here, we’ll let you see it.’ That’s just kind of human nature, I’m afraid,” said Key.
In West Lafayette, officials say the body camera program has been incredibly successful. They started using body cameras in 2014 and have increased body camera usage against in 2015. The department had a 66% decline in use-of-force incidents in three years.
“This is money well spent,” said Police Chief Jason Dombkowski. “Everybody behaves differently when they’re being video recorded, I think most people would agree with that.”
The Indiana Broadcasters Association (IBA) is opposing the bill. IBA chairman Dave Crooks said the bill would allow police agencies to hide things from the public. “We don’t think any government agency should hide things from the public,” said Crooks.
“We strongly believe that if Illinois had this same exact language on their books in state law, most people would have never seen the videos that have been released out of Chicago involving the police incident shootings,” said Crooks.
“Police video footage can be kept confidential, period, regardless of what the video shows. It starts with that premise, so yes, it’s bad policy,” said Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.
Under the proposed bill, the public would have a right to view video if they themselves were videotaped, if a deceased relative was captured on video, or if their property was in the video. Even in those situations, the video can only be viewed twice and police departments aren’t required to provide a copy of the video. In all other cases, it would be at the discretion of each department to choose which videos it wants to release.
The legislature is expected to vote on the bill in the next few weeks.