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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida House should improve police body camera bill

Published Apr. 23, 2015

Bad legislation made marginally better is still bad legislation. The House should make significant changes today to a bill that would keep too many videos from police body cameras secret. As it stands, the legislation would undercut the very purpose of body cameras, creating more suspicion about police hiding incidents of excessive force rather than building public trust through transparency.

The bill passed by the Senate (SB 248) has too many loopholes that make it far too easy to keep these videos secret. The videos would not be public records if they were taken within a private residence; a facility that offers health care or mental health care or social services; or anywhere a reasonable person would expect to be in a private place. That would keep the public in the dark in too many situations, and it offers too much protection for police under the smoke cloud of personal privacy concerns.

On the plus side, the Senate eliminated a provision that also would have exempted videos from police body cameras at the scene of an incident involving death or an injury requiring transporting someone for medical treatment. That was obviously too broad and could have shielded most any video where police hurt someone in a public place. But the House has more work to do before this legislation approaches responsible public policy.

The First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for public records and open government, proposes two smart changes (full disclosure: Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens is a member of the foundation's board of trustees). First, the locations where videos would be exempt from the public record should be removed and replaced with a provision protecting private citizens from being identified in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. That would enable individual images to be blurred in some situations so the video depicting police activity still could be released.

Second, the legislation lists eight factors judges must consider when deciding whether body camera videos should become public — including whether making the video public would harm the reputation of a person in the recording. Those factors would make it difficult for a judge to permit the release of any video, and the House should replace them with less specific language that better balances private rights with the public's right to evaluate the performance of the police.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, defends the Senate bill that he sponsored and argues that individuals in the videos can agree to make them public. But that applies only to the portion of the video involving that individual, and it misses the point. Many individuals in videos from police body cameras are not going to want them released, and there is a broader public interest at stake than one person's embarrassment.

The House should make substantial changes to improve this legislation. Otherwise, videos from police body cameras are not going to serve their intended purpose of ensuring Floridians can judge for themselves whether officers are acting appropriately.