Study Spurs Discussion of State-Level Police Body Cam Legislation

In a study aimed at the state legislation across the country, the Sunlight Foundation found that the overarching theme of legislation could largely be described by looking at four main points.

by / August 10, 2016

There has been a lot of conversation and debate about the role body cameras play in the law enforcement arena. Are they a tool for transparency and liability protection, or are they just another way to support a one-sided narrative on the part of police agencies? The debate continues.

Last week, Government Technology reported on the status of municipalities and ongoing efforts to implement cohesive and open policies. Long story short, cities, like states, are largely behind in releasing policies that protect transparency, public access and the officers who wear them.

But in a study aimed at the state legislation across the country, the Sunlight Foundation outlined a flurry of legislative activity that will no doubt spur the discussion along. In 2015, the foundation outlined 10 bills that have passed and many more that are pending. 

Though it is difficult to identify a single common denominator among the bills, senior analyst Emily Shaw explained the overarching theme of legislation could largely be described by looking at four main points: the collection of footage, retention of footage, accessibility of footage through public records laws and how the footage dovetails with video taken by in-car cameras. 

While so-called dashcams have been around long enough for the rules and laws surrounding them to catch up, body cameras offer new and more sensitive challenges, as they are more likely to capture private details, like the interior of a person’s home.

“There is kind of an effort to assert that there is a common element, but there is a lot of variation, in fact. I think that what we are observing is that there are some continuations of the trend that existed last year to create commissions to understand this better,” Shaw said. “And then there is a lot of work on understanding the public records impacts of these cameras.”

At least five state commissions were created to examine the issue in the previous legislative cycle.

Body-worn cameras have also been a focus of rulemaking efforts at the local government level. These disjointed efforts have led many state legislatures to create uniform laws regarding the public access and retention of video data. 

“It’s really been a point of discussion and funding in larger cities, which have also been developing departmental policies or ordinances to address many of the same questions that are dealt with in state law.”

As is often the case in the technology space, Shaw agrees that the popularity of police-worn devices may have outpaced the rules surrounding them, but she sees the divide closing quickly. 

“In the sense that the adoption of the technology was so rapid, that might be the case because this has been a remarkably fast uptake for a type of technology,” she said. “It’s one where [the technology] has gone more quickly than the legislative process has worked to define it, but the legislation is also moving very quickly.”

She compares it to the ongoing debate in some states around prevalent technologies like text and email messaging and public records access.

To add to the complexity of the situation, police-recorded videos are often competing with civilian footage following high-profile incidents, which enhances the need for reaching a middle ground when it comes to access.  

“Because [body cameras] are interacting with the phenomenon of personal bystander video, it really throws this issue of access into a new light.the reason that the body cameras have been so broadly embraces is because constituencies can see their own interests in it,” Shaw said. “People who support police and believe they’re likely to do the right thing most of the time, like body cameras because they see them as exonerating evidence. People who don’t trust the police and think they’re likely to be doing illegal things, like it because it should be providing evidence of bad practice.”

Eyragon Eidam Assistant News Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the assistant news editor for Government Technology magazine, and covers legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.