A bill now making sure law enforcement agencies across the state that use body cameras have set guidelines passed another hurdle in the Senate Tuesday. It’s the same bill that originally mandated all officers wear the devices.
Sen. Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale) says the overall premise of his bill is simple.
“We have a proliferation of body cameras throughout the state,” said Smith. “I think it’s a great tool for law enforcement to wear body cameras, but we want to have confidence in the use of those body cameras, not only from law enforcement but from the public also. And, what this bill attempts to do is provide a public records exemption for those recordings that are taken in a place where you expect privacy: a home, a hospital room, to keep those records from the public unless the person depicted allows it to be.”
Smith says he had to amend the bill to avoid problems like one that the sheriff department in his district is already encountering with certain public record requests.
“One problem that we have I can tell you in Broward County: our sheriffs have reached out, they’re getting inundated with public record requests for body camera video of very private places that is clearly for voyeuristic reasons,” added Smith.
The new change got the support of several law groups and agencies Tuesday, like the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, and the Miami Police Department. J.D. Patterson representing Miami P.D. applauded the bill’s new direction.
“And we, in fact, want to basically say that we think this bill is going to enhance our ability to do our jobs on a lot of levels and help us build trust and transparency down in Dade County,” said Patterson, during a committee hearing Tuesday.
But, others raised concerns, like Michelle Richardson, the public policy director of the ACLU of Florida.
“As law enforcement departments across the state begin adopting this technology, this legislation threatens to undercut the entire oversight purpose of the cameras by ensuring that even in the most egregious situations, communities cannot hold their police officers accountable,” said Richardson.
She says the bill’s purpose is getting lost.
“The body worn cameras have been shown to reduce the use of force and the number of citizen complaints,” added Richardson. “Honestly, that’s only because those who are being filmed fear the possibility that their bad behavior will someday become public. By preemptively declaring the footage secret, this legislation has transformed body cameras from a potential oversight tool into an evidence-collection one solely.”
The original measure has gone through a series of surgeries to appeal to all the stakeholders involved, including the ACLU. But, Richardson says even with the new change, the ACLU still has problems with the bill. She says the new list of exemptions is way too broad.
“For example, they still could include a situation where events happen in public,” she continued. “For example, where there is a scene of emergency or even just in a parking lot of a hospital. They could exclude scenes where there is allegations of use of force, even a shooting that results in death. They can also hide video when there are legitimate allegations of abuse, discrimination, or misconduct. While the person on the video is allowed to personally see it with his lawyer and family members, it is not allowed to be released to the public.”
Still, Smith says while the bill still needs some tweaks, it’s essentially where he wants it to be.
“In order for body cameras to work, our law enforcement officers need to keep the cameras on, and people who are the subject of these videos—when they’re on—they need to feel that if I’m in a place that is supposed to be private to me, that this tape will not be on TMZ, will not be on the local show the next night showing into my house, showing the most intimate details of my life that aren’t subject to any court case or anything at this point,” said Smith.
And, the measure passed the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability committee Tuesday with Miami Democratic Senator Dwight Bullard the only one voting against it. Meanwhile, its House companion has passed its first committee stop, and is expected to go through a similar change.
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