Make it Oregon policy: Release police bodycam videos
The value of bodycams should be that the public can see how police do their jobs.
Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would standardize the use of body cameras worn by police officers and strictly limit the public release of the video recordings. Those limits are reasonable for the most part, but when a recording involves the use of force by an officer, the presumption should be to release the video, not restrict it.
Police use of deadly force against citizens, armed and unarmed, is an issue of growing concern, and lawmakers across the country are grappling with how to respond to those concerns while allowing law enforcement officers to do their jobs and protecting the public at the same time. Many police departments have responded by equipping officers with body cameras that take video recordings of their interactions with suspects and others.
The Oregon measure, House Bill 2571, does not require police departments to use the cameras, but sets out guidelines if they choose to do so. Among other things, departments using cameras would have to require the camera to be turned on as soon as an officer had probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed and leave it on until the police action was complete, and retain the recordings for at least six months.
HB 2571 would exempt the recordings from disclosure under public records laws except in two narrow instances: If the recording was part of a court proceeding or if it involved the use of force by an officer and the public interest required its release.
Elements of court proceedings already are public records, and ought to remain so. The desire to protect the privacy of individuals who interact with police is understandable, and most of the recordings likely would be of little interest to anyone not directly involved.
But any time an officer uses force, especially when injury or death results, releasing the recording should be presumed to be in the public interest, not subject to the discretion of the department. There is already an exemption for records involving active police investigations, and that would certainly apply when the use of force is being investigated. But once the investigation concludes, the recording should be released.
We would add a third instance when a recording should be a public record: when a complaint is filed against an officer alleging wrongdoing or misconduct, even if the matter does not become a court case. The public has a legitimate interest in how police officers conduct themselves on the job, and anyone questioning that conduct should be able to request a video recording of it.
Just as trust in government is strengthened when government records are available to the public, trust in law enforcement will be improved if recordings of police conduct are not hidden from public view.
— Mail Tribune, Medford, March 25
‘Body camera videos are public documents and should be treated as such’
The challenge associated with so many police custody or use-of-force cases is in belief: plain acceptance that things happened as police say they did. Yet police officers suffer from the credibility gap as much as an at-times incredulous public: Slow reconstructions of controversial events from narrative accounts by witnesses and police can wring faith from a community by showing a murky result, satisfying no one.
Body cameras do not fix everything. Least of all do they furnish uncontested truth. But their increasing embrace by departments nationally has yielded a new genre of public document: footage of engagement by police with suspects or others, as seen from the point of view of the officers wearing the camera. What is shown, typically, is believable. The body camera in that sense represents a documentary advance that, if managed wisely, can benefit the public and the police.
Portland embraces the new technology. Mayor Charlie Hales has made clear he wants body cameras to be available to all police officers while on duty by next year. Meanwhile the Legislature considers a bill that would establish ground rules to be followed by all Oregon towns and cities choosing to employ body cameras for their police officers.
House Bill 2571, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, and others, draws a sensible baseline that allows communities to create their own protocols and policies governing body-camera use. Among other things, the bill requires that body-worn cameras record continuously, from the moment an officer develops a reasonable suspicion that an illegal action is about to occur or has occurred, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Maxine Bernstein reported.
That means no editing, no gaps in the event record. That also means the officer must, amid the many sudden decisions to be made in critical moments, choose to activate the camera in the first place — a leap of faith in some situations, perhaps, and the target of critics who worry about the selective use of the cameras by police. And Williamson’s bill correctly stipulates that all recordings would be the property of the law enforcement agency, not a third party hired to do so, safeguarding the public against contractors who might fail to recognize potential compromises to the personal privacy of innocent citizens. Who, if caught running nude from the shower during a domestic dispute, would want such footage to be released as a public document?
But that’s where things get sticky. HB2571 would require that videos from police body cameras be exempt from public disclosure except under limited circumstances. While the bill is otherwise smart and should be adopted by the Legislature, its provision to keep the documents out of the public’s review in most instances works against hard-won transparency provisions already in Oregon law and should be struck. The person caught running from the shower already enjoys protections against a damaging release.
The spirit of HB2571 aligns with actions underway in several other states. Arizona and Florida lawmakers, for example, have said they fear criminals could, using freedom of information laws, indiscriminately acquire police videos for uploading to the Internet only to extort those who are embarrassed and online. But that argument quickly falls apart: Several provisions already in Oregon law can be invoked to limit a document’s release in the interest of protecting personal privacy or an ongoing criminal investigation. And it ignores the fact that detailed incident reports at the police station or videos captured by a police squad car’s dashboard camera are public documents available for the asking.
Body camera videos are public documents and should be treated as such. To selectively withhold them is to address a problem that does not exist. Lawmakers should refashion the otherwise solid HB2571 to ensure body camera videos are readily available, passing the tests posed by so many exemptions on the books. The new law would then be a real gain in assisting communities in the complex task of having police officers reliably record their engagements with the public while bolstering their accountability as well as the public’s.
— The Oregonian, Portland, March 26