Push to limit access to police body camera videos is a solution in search of a problem

Proponents of new limits on the public release of police body camera video come at the issue from a variety of perspectives. Some are concerned that video showing victims of alleged domestic or sexual assault could become public, thus leading to stigmatization of those who are already vulnerable. Others worry that videos could show embarrassing or private details of one’s home — footage of dirty dishes in the sink, or a homeowner’s collection of firearms, as some legislators mused during hearings on the topic this year. And representatives of local governments in particular are worried that they will be slammed with overly broad requests for video that will prove expensive and time consuming.

Into the mix come two Baltimore County Council members — Todd Crandall of Dundalk and A. Wade Kach of Cockeysville — who are proposing a resolution calling on the legislature to finally act. They say they want to add a “layer of protection for innocent victims and bystanders for their privacy.”

But the truth is, Maryland (and Baltimore County, in particular) is not suffering from the over-disclosure of police body camera footage. Quite the opposite. Existing law provides police and prosecutors with broad discretion to withhold records, and they have been exercising it. Existing law also allows government agencies to charge those who request records for the costs of reviewing and producing them. In all, this is a solution in search of a problem.

The legislation the General Assembly has considered during the past two years contains some reasonable efforts to specifically shield records depicting victims of abuse. What The Sun and most other reputable news organizations print, broadcast or post would not likely be impacted by such a prohibition, as we already have policies against identifying such victims. But another portion of the legislation is trickier and potentially problematic.

It sought to prohibit disclosure of video records except in cases that result in: “the arrest, attempted arrest, temporary detention, attempted temporary detention, search, attempted search, citation, death, or injury of an individual; the use of force against an individual; or a complaint or allegation of officer misconduct made against any law enforcement officer involved in the incident.”

But there are legitimate reasons why reviewing videos that don’t fall into those categories would be in the public interest. We should not artificially limit the public’s ability to see the context in which a potentially questionable action takes place. If an officer is accused of misconduct in one case, for example, it might be important to review his or her other interactions with the public to determine whether there might be a pattern or whether other officers turned a blind eye to it. If an officer is suspected of acting with racial animus during an arrest, it could be useful to see how he or she interacts with people of different races in other contexts. If an officer is accused of planting evidence, it could be useful to review his or her conversations with other officers before or after the incident. If an officer is accused of using coercive tactics to secure permission for a search, we might want to see whether he or she did the same at other times.

The existing Public Information Act includes exemptions to disclosure not only for records related to an ongoing investigation but also those in which an “unwarranted invasion of the privacy of a person in interest” would result from disclosure. The government already has the authority to redact information that might embarrass or risk the safety of an individual. And the proposed legislation does nothing to protect government agencies from the expense of handling broad requests. If legislation like this passed, officials would still need to review potentially large numbers of body camera videos to see whether they fall into the exemptions provided by the bill.

We recognize the extensive efforts proponents of the legislation have undertaken to incorporate the views of open government advocates an the press, and the legislation that passed the House of Delegates and failed in the Senate this year represented a significant improvement over previous proposals. (The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association took no position on the bill this year.) But it remains at best unnecessary and at worst overly restrictive. The harms of excessive disclosure that proponents posit remain hypothetical, but the legacy of insufficient transparency about the actions of police is all too real; indeed, it is the reason we got body cameras in the first place. Taking steps to ensure that we have an objective record of encounters between the police and the public is a major advance in our effort to build trust between law enforcement and the community. We should not undermine it.

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