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ACLU & other groups now oppose police body camera bill in Tallahassee

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After the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement agencies last year, there was a nationwide clamor for police officers to begin wearing body cameras as a way to provide transparency and accountability for both the police and the citizenry. President Obama announced $263 million in funding for law enforcement agencies to buy body-worn cameras and improve training, and police departments throughout the Tampa Bay area said they would begin implementing their usage as well.

And in the Legislature, Broward County Democratic state Rep. Shevrin Jones filed HB 57, a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to create policies and rules for body camera use, data recording and storage. That legislation was initially supported by a variety of progressive groups. But many of those same groups announced today that they are now opposing the bill, saying that its “overly broad” public record exemptions shield the public from learning about police misconduct.

“The bill as drafted is potentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said ACLU of Florida Public Policy Director Michelle Richardson in a statement. “Police body cameras can be a win for both police officers and the communities they serve only if they are governed by policies that balance accountability and privacy. While a growing number of Florida law enforcement agencies have already found that balance, the bill as written would roll back those smart policies and make it possible for the officers who engage in misconduct to hide their behavior from the public.”

The ACLU and 10 other activist groups today penned a letter to Jones, informing him that amendments to the bill as passed out of its first committee would prevent the public release of body camera footage. They specifically cite examples listed in the legislation: when the video is taken in a home; includes footage of someone under 14 or 18 if taken in a school; has information obtained at emergency scenes; describes events on property used by medical or social service agencies; or is recorded anywhere there is an expectation of privacy.

“While these exceptions purportedly protect the privacy of citizens and police alike,” the groups write, “They are far too broad and can prevent disclosure of evidence of police misconduct even in the most egregious circumstances such as the alleged use of excessive or deadly force.”

The groups say that while they are opposed to SB 248 — filed by Sen. Chris Smith — as currently drafted, they urge the members of the committee to look to the separate bill, HB 57, which would require police departments that use police body cameras to create written guidelines governing their use.

Here’s the entire letter:

March 6, 2015

Dear Senator,

We the undersigned organizations write in opposition to SB 248, a bill that creates public record exemptions for several categories of videos that would be obtained through police-worn body cameras.
We support the use of police-worn body cameras because their use will reduce instances of unnecessary or excessive force and number of citizen complaints alleging misconduct by law enforcement officers. The record of police-worn body cameras around the country indicates that these are the beneficial consequences of their use.

The current bill undercuts these important outcomes by shielding the video from public view in too many circumstances.

As the bill has been reported from the Senate Criminal Justice Subcommittee, it would now prevent public release of body camera footage whenever the video is: 1) taken in a home, 2) displays someone under 14, or under 18 if the video is taken in a school, 3) contains information obtained at emergency scenes, 4) describes events on property used by medical or social service agencies, and 5) anywhere there is an expectation of privacy.

While these exceptions purportedly protect the privacy of citizens and police alike, they are far too broad and can prevent disclosure of evidence of police misconduct even in the most egregious circumstances such as the alleged use of excessive or deadly force.

Also note that, as reported by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the video can still be released by law enforcement whenever the agency chooses to release the video. The ultimate effect of this bill is not to protect officers, homeowners or victims from embarrassment but to ensure that law enforcement is the sole determiner of when to release video footage.

There are currently exemptions in Florida Public Records law that bar the release of information necessary to protect ongoing investigations and sexual assault, domestic violence and child victims. If these exemptions ultimately prove to be too narrow, the legislature can revisit the issue armed with actual evidence and at that time narrowly craft a response.

If the legislature is to act on police-worn body cameras this year, we recommend the Legislature take up HB 57 instead. This bill simply requires police departments that use body cameras to draft written guidelines governing their use. This is a far less sweeping way to address privacy that simultaneously respects the very important oversight purposes of the cameras.

The letter is signed by the ACLU of Florida, Dream Defenders, Equality Florida, Emerge USA, Faith in Florida, Florida Coalition for Black Civic Participation, Florida Immigrant Coalition, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement – Central Florida, National Congress of Black Women, Organize Now, and South Florida Voices for Working Families.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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