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Bill would restrict public access to footage from police body cameras

TState lawmakers took the first steps Wednesday to restricting public access to the images from police body cameras.

SB 1300 neither requires nor prohibits officers from taking videos when they deal with the public.

It does bar police officers from having cameras that operate on a full-time basis. Instead, they could wear only devices that they can turn on in specific situations.

That includes traffic stops, making an arrest, stopping a suspicious person and when an officer believes the situation may generate a complaint against him or her.

But the measure approved unanimously by the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Military and Technology also requires that officers turn off cameras after the situation has ended. And it permits the officers to turn them off if requested by someone who they are interviewing.

Potentially more significant, the legislation which now needs full Senate approval pretty much makes the recordings confidential. As approved, a “recordable incident” can be released to the public only by a court order or a subpoena.

It does allow release if the incident recorded involves an officer using or attempting to use deadly physical force. But that can occur only if the law enforcement agency consents to the release.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, defended the restriction.

“Police body cameras are a grave threat to privacy,” he said, not only to police officers and citizens who they encounter but even to criminals. “We need to get ahead of this and protect people’s privacy.”

Kavanagh said allowing the recordings to be made public on a simple request would make every police officer “an unpaid de facto cameraman for TV reality shows and, worse yet, web sites that exist for the sole purpose of humiliating people or extorting money from people.”

He figures some of that could be solved with the ban on full-time cameras, with officers turning them on only in the listed circumstances. And the legislation has a bit of wiggle room, saying the requirement to activate a camera exists only “when practical.”

But Kavanagh said the limits on release of what is actually videotaped are still necessary.

Among those with concerns are Chris Moeser, attorney for the Arizona Republic.

“The fundamental problem is it makes it hard for the public to monitor what the police are doing,” he said.

Moeser acknowledged nothing in existing law or even this statute requires police officers to videotape their encounters with the public. But he said the situation changes if police are going to be wearing the cameras which he said is evidence of their official on-the-job activities.

“That fits the definition of a public record to a T,” he said.

The question of what gets released became a real situation late last year when Flagstaff police officer Tyler Stewart was shot while wearing a body camera. Chief Kevin Treadway said that led to immediate requests from the media for the images.

In the end, Treadway said, he released the video – but only up to the point where Stewart was shot. But the police chief told lawmakers he would have preferred not to release even that and instead treated the entire video like evidence which is generally not public.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life protecting the life of victims,” Treadway said. “And just because officer Stewart was wearing a uniform does not mean he was any less a victim that day.”

Moeser said he thinks Treadway made the right decision. But he fears the wording of SB 1300 which leaves the decision of what to make public to the police department could result only in the release of video “that makes them look good.”

Kavanagh also defended the provision of his legislation that allows individuals to ask officers to turn off the recording.

“The camera faces out,” he said.

“My constituents are on that video,” Kavanagh continued. “And I don’t want them humiliated.”

He said if they are not criminal or suspects they should have the right to ask a police officer to turn off a camera.

While none of the senators on the panel voted against the measure, several expressed concerns. Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said she wants to ensure there is a proper balance between accountability of officers and privacy.

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