A bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee today in Tallahassee would unreasonably limit the public's ability to hold police and prison guards accountable for excessive force in an effort to spare families of murder victims added distress. The legislation, SB 416, would exempt from public records the photographs, video and audio recordings that capture a murder in order to protect victims' families from enduring the pain of seeing their relative's death posted on the Internet or widely disseminated. But a blanket exclusion is not in the public interest and would make it easier to cover up wrongdoing by law enforcement officials. The legal system has better ways of handling individual cases.
It was the graphic videotape showing the brutal treatment of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at a Panhandle boot camp in 2006 that galvanized public reaction. Anderson died less than 24 hours after he was choked and ammonia pills were pushed up his nose by eight guards at the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp. The images sparked public outrage and pressured state officials to act. Ultimately the case led to the state shutting down boot camps.
These kinds of cases are often whitewashed or covered up initially as institutions try to protect themselves from scandal or worse. Having access to visual or audio evidence of lethal interactions may be the only way for the press and public to discern the truth and demand accountability. And there is a deterrent effect. When police and guards know their actions may be publicly scrutinized later, they may be more restrained.
Under SB 416, sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, the deceased's closest relative could get a copy of the images or recordings and could authorize others to receive copies or view them as well. Government agencies would have access too, for official business, but members of the media or general public would be barred from viewing or hearing the material without a court order. That is a burdensome requirement that judges in high-profile cases may not be likely to grant, and it deprives the public the opportunity to see for themselves what happened.
This is coming up now because the shooting deaths of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis were captured on the dashboard camera of Curtis' cruiser. A local media outlet sued for access to the video, and reporters were able to view it without making copies. At least there was public access created in a way that allowed for detailed news accounts from independent viewers without creating a situation that would have enabled the video to find its way to the Web.
Bogdanoff's bill and a similar one in the House, HB 411, seem to be moving along with little opposition. Closing off public records is not a decision that should be based on emotion. Of course there is sympathy for the victims' families and a desire not to inflict more pain on them. But there are broader issues to consider. Some time in the future, the creation of this public records exemption could help some member of law enforcement get away with murder — because it would be virtually impossible for the media and the public to see what happened.