Oregon Bill Exempts Police Body-Cam Footage from Public Disclosure

The House bill would allow public release of the footage only if a court decides the images are in the public interest.

by Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian / May 6, 2015

(TNS) -- The Oregon House voted 50-to-9 Tuesday to approve a bill requiring police agencies that choose to equip officers with body cameras to follow some statewide standards.

"This bill is not a mandate that our law enforcement agencies use body cameras,'' said state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. "This simply creates a policy floor. Agencies can tailor their polices to their department and community needs.''

Yet even supporters said they expect some amendments as the bill passes to the Senate regarding the guidelines governing the release of the video footage.

As more and more cities across the nation are equipping their officers with the cameras, they're also facing the same question: Who should be allowed to see the images?

As it stands, House Bill 2571 A exempts the videotaped footage from public disclosure, except under limited circumstances.

The bill would allow public release of the footage only if a court decides the images are in the public interest. Further, all facial images – both of police officers and citizens – would have to be completely blurred before releasing the footage.

Williamson said a work group grappled with how to strike a balance between holding police accountable and protecting people's privacy rights. On Tuesday, she called the bill "a good middle ground.''

Other lawmakers voiced concern.

State Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, a radio station owner and broadcaster, opposed the bill.

Wilson said he didn't support the blurring of all faces and questioned who would determine if "public interest'' required disclosure. Williamson responded that the courts will decide.

"As a member of the media, I'm not comfortable with that,'' Wilson said.

The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and the Oregon Association of Broadcasters urged legislators to vote against the bill.

"This adversely affects transparency to the public we serve,'' the groups wrote in a statement to the House.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, while supporting the bill, also had reservations about the bill's restrictions on public disclosure and blurring of all faces and indicated it hoped those areas will be addressed as the bill moves to the Senate. The ACLU initially favored the release of police body cam video if all civilians in the footage gave consent or if the footage included police use of force or alleged misconduct that resulted in an investigation.

"We hope the bill as drafted will be interpreted to allow such disclosures, as both are necessary for body cameras to serve as a tool for accountability,'' the ACLU of Oregon wrote to House members. Further, the ACLU argued that the blurring of all faces, including officers, "could seriously jeopardize'' the purpose of the videos as a check on misconduct.

State Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin/West Linn, voted in favor of the bill, but urged a better balance on what's made public. The blurring of all faces "is probably not the right way to get there,'' she said.

The Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, the Oregon State Sheriff's Association and the city of Portland supported the bill.

Under the bill, police agencies that choose to equip officers with body cameras would have to adopt these standards:

  • Require the body-worn cameras to record continuously, from when officers develop reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that a crime or violation has occurred until officers complete their law enforcement action. An agency may adopt exceptions to this rule, based on privacy concerns or safety of an officer or member of the public.
  • Retain the recording for at least 180 days, but no more than 30 months, if not related to a court proceeding.
  • Ensure the recordings are the property of the law enforcement agency, not a third-party vendor.
  • Prohibit the use of facial-recognition technology when analyzing recordings from body cameras, and not allow recordings to be used for anything other than a legitimate law enforcement purpose.

Those voting against the bill were state Reps. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford; Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton; Andy Olson, R-Albany; Bill Post, R-Keizer; Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass; Jim Weidner, R-Yamhill; Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver; Gail Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, and Wilson. Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, was excused.

©2015 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.