Florida Senate considers shielding video from police body cameras

People expect the devices worn by law enforcement to add transparency, but the state Senate is considering limiting access.
Published April 13 2015
Updated April 14 2015

TALLAHASSEE — As activists and law enforcement push for officer-worn cameras as a way to inject more transparency into policing, the Florida Senate is poised to shield those videos from the public.

Critics say the proposed law — part of a widespread legislative push to keep more records private — would keep the public in the dark when police use excessive force.

"The whole purpose of these (body camera) records is to reassure the public (and) also to protect the officers from unwarranted accusations," said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation.

In the past year, videos primarily taken on cell phones by bystanders have ignited public debate after officers killed people in Cleveland and New York City. Just last week, an officer in North Charleston, S.C., was fired and charged with murder after video surfaced that showed him shooting and killing an unarmed man running away from a traffic stop.

Some suggest police donning body cameras would help discern the truth after such confrontations.

Some local departments in Florida, meanwhile, have latched onto the technology in hope that more evidence will protect their officers from undue accusations of excessive force. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department have already equipped their officers

Lawmakers like Sen. Chris Smith, D.-Fort Lauderdale, suggest a different priority than transparency: privacy. The Senate is expected to approve a bill by Smith, SB 248, which would exempt videos from state open records laws when they are taken in private places or involve medical emergencies and deaths.

He said he wants to make it harder for "third parties" to obtain video so people aren't discouraged from cooperating with police who are wearing body cameras. Smith's ultimate goal is to encourage police to wear cameras.

"In this TMZ age that we live in," Smith said, in reference to the gossip website, "I wanted to make sure that a person is confident to have an officer coming into their home with a body camera."

But he's not convinced by critics' claims that footage of police brutality won't make its way into the public.

The legislation allows agencies and the people captured on film by police to decide who has access to body camera video. Anyone else would have to get a court order.

"If a person is a victim of police brutality, why would that person not release a video?" Smith asked. "On that one, I'm still trying to find what's the big problem."

This bill is one of dozens this session that would change Florida's public record and open meeting laws, widely considered some of the most transparent in the country. Others would shield police officers' addresses, surveillance video from certain public agencies and the names of applicants for top administrative jobs at state universities.

Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation worries Smith's bill could block video evidence in all police-involved shootings and other excessive force cases from public scrutiny because such incidents are medical emergencies. The bill provides a list of exemptions that she says are overly broad.

"These are all so big we could drive a truck through them," Petersen said

She also said it could prove difficult for members of the public to gain access to original videos because the bill requires judges to consider if releasing a video would cause harm to the reputation of anyone in the video or reveal personal information.

Agencies would be required to keep videos for only 90 days.

In a statement Monday, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said he supports Smith's legislation.

"He has crafted language that balances the public's ability to be videoed in what a reasonable person would believe is a public place and has protected the privacy rights of citizens," he said. "The body-worn camera should be used as a tool of evidence."

The Sheriff's Office has outfitted all of its deputies with cameras. When Nocco announced the plans in December, he cited transparency as one of the reasons for doing so.

Smith's bill isn't the only attempt by the Legislature to regulate body cameras this session. Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, is sponsoring legislation requiring police departments to set their own policies for privacy, data retention and training.

In other states, lawmakers are grappling with the same issues, seeking fair policies for a technology that, while not new, has yet to become commonplace.

At least 30 state legislatures this year are considering bills related to body cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some plans are for beginning to use the cameras or require training for officers, while others restrict access to records like Florida's. Last year, Oklahoma lawmakers added body camera videos to the state's public records law.

Municipalities across the country have embraced the technology, as well, including Seattle, which acted after the U.S. Department of Justice investigated its police force for racial bias. Now, the department is doing something with its videos that Petersen thinks Florida agencies should consider: It's blurring out people's faces and uploading the footage to YouTube.

"Instead, in Florida, we're going to put it in a dark closet," she said. "And then you have to go to court to get the key."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.