xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

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

The video, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request, is among the first footage ever viewed from a police body camera in the city. The Sun is blurring the image of the person captured on the video to protect her privacy.

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.

Two Baltimore County councilmen want state lawmakers to take a second look at body camera regulations, saying they're concerned about invasion of privacy.

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."

Advertisement

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.

Recently released police video from two incidents involving Annapolis police officers provides more context to the events, but it doesn't answer every question. Advocates for the cameras say that is OK because what matters more is having more data and evidence in cases where officers may abuse their power or come under fire from assailants.

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.

Advertisement

Baltimore County officials say they are considering requiring officers who moonlight as security guards to

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."

Baltimore police and prosecutors have launched investigations after being alerted to body camera footage that the public defender's office says shows an officer planting drugs. 

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.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement