House Judiciary Committee considers bill to exempt police body cam recordings from FOIA

MiCOG has grave concerns about proposed substitute HB 4234, known as the Law Enforcement Body-Worn Camera Privacy Act.”

Our suggestions for change and comments were submitted in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee in advance of its scheduled hearing on the bill Tuesday, April 14.

Body-worn cameras are a great tool for law enforcement officers. The video and audio from these cameras can protect them from false claims of brutality and misconduct and insulate communities and taxpayers from expensive police brutality litigation and judgments. It can also restrain them from being overly aggressive in their dealings with citizens.

The use of body-worn cameras by a number of law enforcement agencies across the country has shown significant reductions in police use of force and bogus citizen complaints against police officers. A pilot study in Rialto, California supported by the Police Foundation details the value of this program (http://www.policefoundation.org/content/body-worn-cameras-police-use-force). In Seattle, all the raw videos from police body cameras are uploaded to YouTube without audio and with citizens’ face being blurred.

As currently drafted, HB 4234 would jeopardize the public health, safety and welfare of citizens, provide undeserved protection and cover for the few bad actors in the Michigan law enforcement community, and further compromise the already poor public perception of police agencies and their dealings with persons of color, particularly the black men in the state.

Michigan should not legislate hiding this important knowledge from its citizens by exempting these video and audio records from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information law.  Exempting this law from the FOI requirements removes any chance of impartial, neutral judicial review of exemptions as provided by the FOIA.

Why is it important to have these recordings be available to the public? Recent widely publicized incidents in Ferguson (Mo.), New York City,  and this past week in North Charleston (S.C.) and California continue to raise questions about how a few law enforcement officers, in the heat of the moment, may use unnecessary force in arrests.

The Inkster police dash cam video of the arrest of a black man in January illustrate the importance of this video evidence. One of the officers involved in that beating has now been fired

Citizen cell phone video in North Charleston, S.C. , is the only reason, the officer involved was quickly fired and placed under arrest, according to both the police chief and the mayor. Though an internal investigation may have eventually raised questions about eight shots fired into the back of a fleeing individual, the video provided proof that will eventually be scrutinized in court at the officer’s murder trial.

After the widely publicized  incidents in Ferguson and New York City last year, there is a perception that the United States has a real problem with police violence.  According to an ACLU White Paper, in 2011,  police killed six people in Australia, two in England, six in Germany and, according to an FBI Report, 404 in the United States (410 killings reported in 2012). The FBI’s data compiled only “justifiable homicides,” and the report counted “voluntarily submitted data from just 750 of 17,000 law enforcement agencies. Attempts by journalists to compile more complete data by collating local news reports have resulted in estimates as high as 1,000 police killings per year in the United States. Fully a quarter of the deaths involved a white officer killing a black person.”

The majority of law enforcement officers and agencies in Michigan and elsewhere are upstanding, conscientious public servants. However, there are some bad cops out there, and even substitute HB 4234, as currently written, would protect them and their departments from accountability by shielding essential public scrutiny of police actions. That in no way serves the public interest. And it in no way serves the taxpayers who ultimately pay the cost of police brutality jury verdicts.

Michigan should take a leadership role in creating reasonable and transparent laws on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement agencies in the state. HB 4234 needs to be amended and should not be exempted from the state FOIA.

Let your state representative know that  video and audio recordings from law enforcement worn body cameras should be accessible to the public.

 

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