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As Police Body Camera Use Grows, So Do Efforts To Keep Recordings Private

Body cameras are becoming more popular in police departments across the country, but state legislators are considering laws that would keep the videos out of public sight.

Posted on April 25, 2015, at 12:07 a.m. ET

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras.

Shouts of “no justice, no peace,” filled the back of the room when North Charleston’s mayor promised all of the city’s cops would be equipped with cameras.

Cell phone video from a witness showed Officer Michael Slager firing a volley of shots at Walter Scott's back, contradicting Slager's account of what happened and extending national outrage over the killing of another unarmed black man.

As in North Charleston, body cameras for officers have repeatedly been cited as a way police agencies can appease an increasingly distrustful public — an added layer of oversight, a foolproof witness.

When federal judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in 2013 the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies racially discriminated, she suggested cops in the most affected precincts be equipped with body cameras.

Days after a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the department began deploying the cameras in the field.

But as police body cameras become more common on the street, some lawmakers are stepping in to limit access to what they capture, and according to advocates like Chad Marlow, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, that's a problem.

"If [police] only release what they want the public to see, then it's not a transparency tool, it's a propaganda tool," Marlow told BuzzFeed News.

In cases where an act of force or the events leading up to an arrest are recorded, or a complaint has been filed, "these types of videos are of significant public interest," Marlow added.

"Those videos need to be made available," he said.

However, in nearly half the country, BuzzFeed News found that state legislators are considering laws that would keep the videos out of public sight.

Chuck Burton / AP

North Charleston, S.C., Mayor Keith Summey, left, answers a question about the shooting death of Walter Scott in April.

As of mid-April, 31 states were found to be weighing some sort of body camera law, at least 20 of which are considering limiting access to video footage. The restrictions are even being considered in states like Missouri and South Carolina, where the police-involved shooting deaths of unarmed black men sparked community outrage and demand for the cameras.

Lawmakers in Utah are considering a bill that would require body cameras for all officers, but also make the footage a private record. In Iowa, a proposed bill states that police body camera video recordings "shall be kept confidential."

In Washington, elected officials are considering a bill that would restrict access to the video, and forbids those who do get access from sharing, showing, or describing the footage to anyone.

Several other states are considering making body camera footage exempt from public record laws, even when the footage is not being used in a criminal investigation.

A bill in Kansas, for example, states that body camera footage "shall be confidential and exempt from the public records act."

Jim Mone / AP

Duluth, Minn., police officer Dan Merseth demonstrates the docking procedure for police body cameras at department headquarters.

BuzzFeed News searched for bills that would specifically target body cameras in all 50 states. The search included online databases for proposed legislation in all 50 legislatures, as well as past news articles and experts tracking the issue.

Individual law enforcement agencies may also have adopted policies that affect public access to video footage, but BuzzFeed News focused its search on state laws since they would ultimately determine the legality of local rules.

All told, states that have so far considered bills that would limit access to body camera footage include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

John Locher / AP

Footage from a Las Vegas police department body camera is displayed. The camera is the same type now being used by about 200 street officers in Las Vegas.

The state bills being considered come as more police departments are deploying body cameras in the field amid increased federal resources.

As the issue hit the national level, President Obama proposed a three-year, $263 million investment to promote the use of body cameras and address the "simmering mistrust" between minority communities and police.

But the law enforcement community has struggled to keep pace with the rapid change.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy and research organization, surveyed 63 police departments that were using body cameras in 2013. Of those, up to one-third of the agencies said they did not have written policies in place for using the equipment.

In that void, special interest law enforcement groups have stepped in to lobby for provisions limiting access to camera footage.

Proponents of the bills cite privacy concerns — for officers and victims — as well as the need to fill in for the lack of local policies.

Four months before Scott was shot in North Charleston, legislators were already considering mandating body cameras in South Carolina.

But soon after Sen. Marlon E. Kimpson introduced the bill, stakeholders, including police departments and officer unions, pushed for additional language that would curb access to video footage.

Kimpson told BuzzFeed News he introduced the legislation in response to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, and when Levar Jones of South Carolina was shot by a highway patrol trooper in September. The shooting, which occurred as Jones reached for his wallet, was captured by the patrol vehicle's dash camera. The officer was subsequently charged with assault and battery.

The State / Via

"Video cameras, body cameras, don't lie," Kimpson told BuzzFeed News.

Still he said, after experiencing pushback from law enforcement organizations, Kimpson said he had to accept their "constructive criticism" in order to boost the bill's chances of getting adopted.

That criticism, though, has led to provisions that limit access to the footage, and lawmakers are now considering making the videos exempt the public records law.

Kimpson defended the amendments, saying his ultimate goal was to make wearing the cameras mandatory.

"It is my job, along with my colleagues, to put their substantive input in, but none that is fatal to the bill," Kimpson said. "What we want to do is make sure there is uniformity and make sure there is a mandate because I think it shouldn't be optional, it should be mandatory."

At least 14 states are considering bills that would require officers to wear body cameras in the field — a provision that has been met with mixed reaction.

The North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, for example, opposes any laws mandating the cameras.

The association also listed body camera laws first among its list of legislative policies to keep track of in 2015.

Among its concerns: Addressing how the state's public record law applies to the videos, and assuring "reasonable protections for investigatory and personnel information, and personal privacy of citizens."

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The argument for privacy protections, in fact, has become the driving force behind much of the legislative proposals.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, John Kavanagh — the Arizona state legislator who introduced a bill that would have made all body camera recordings confidential unless a judge stepped in, sparking controversy — said he was driven by a desire to protect officers' privacy.

"When I learned some of these cameras are continuously recording, I became disturbed from a privacy standpoint," said Kavanagh, a former NYPD officer. "Everything is being recorded. I don't think I would have wanted to become a cop if I knew I was wearing a camera all the time. It's very intrusive."

Ross D. Franklin / AP

Arizona state Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.

While he acknowledged that the presence of a recording device can make both cops and civilians behave, Kavanagh also said he is concerned footage from body cameras could be used to feed some sort of website dedicated to police videos.

"I don't think government should be a party of feeding this type of dark, voyeuristic tendencies of people," he said.

Kavanagh's bill has since been dropped to allow time for more research into policies and the possible impacts of body cameras.

Civil liberty groups have also voiced concerns that body cameras could be used by police to record the inside of homes without a warrant, or that video footage would be kept indefinitely.

A bill in Michigan, for example, would ban using facial recognition with the video.

Marlow, of the ACLU, said privacy concerns are legitimate. Still, he added, there is a "rapidly growing consensus" that body cameras can help efforts to restore the public's faith in police.

How lawmakers and the law enforcement community address the proliferation of the cameras, however, will significantly affect how successful those efforts at restoring faith are, Marlow said.

"A lot of jurisdictions are rushing to get body cameras in the field, and they're struggling to do that," he said. "I think the best practices are going to pan out over time."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.