State lawmakers are moving to fund body cameras for Department of Public Safety officers — but only after restricting when people can get access to the footage.
Members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved $6.9 million for purchase of the equipment. There also is cash for ongoing operation, including storage.
But the measure which now needs approval of both chambers also says that what’s on the video can be released only if everyone on the video, excluding the officer, has provided consent or that their images cannot be identified.
More significant, it permits the DPS to withhold all videos unless it determines there is “an important public purpose” for release. And that provision bothered Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who questioned allowing the state agency to make that decision, particularly when its own officers are involved.
There appears to be fairly broad support for the idea of body cameras. The idea is that it would provide an actual record of what had occurred versus what can often be disputed accounts by officers, witnesses and anyone who happens to claim to be the victim of police brutality.
But there is less consensus of how much of all the footage shot by all the officers should become public.
“Are we going to essentially unleash an army of government agents wearing cameras that will basically record people who are not engaged in serious wrongdoing and expose them to embarrassment?” asked Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.
He said that the verbiage in the legislation does say that “important public purpose” includes things like the use of force by an officer, complaints against officers and when there is criminal activity.
“The public should know,” Kavanagh said. “But if the police are searching somebody’s home, nobody has the right to see what the house looks like at 3 a.m.”
But the language in the bill does not stop there.
It separately requires DPS to determine whether it is “appropriate” to withhold or redact any video. And that includes determining that even if the video is a public record but that “privacy, confidentiality or the bests interests of this state outweigh releasing or disclosing the video recording.”
“I’m wondering if the department should be making that decision,” Friese said.
“There are some things that have happened that we’ve seen in the news recently where what was initially described as to a young man wasn’t what happened to a young man,” he said. “And the video was shocking and appalling.”
Friese said perhaps those decisions should be made by an independent third party.
Kavanagh said that already happens, albeit only after there has been a denial.
“Especially with the newspaper industry, if they think that should be released they rush to court,” he said. “And then we have the ultimate third-party, a judge, will make a ruling after hearing the evidence from attorneys on both sides.”
That didn’t satisfy Friese who said it should not be necessary for someone to go to court every time DPS decides it’s not in the public interest to release a video.
Kavanagh said he’s open to the idea of some sort of independent board. But the former police officer balked when Friese suggested that would be a good role for a citizen police oversight or review board.
“Police oversight boards have been so horribly politicized that I don’t think I would want that to spread to another area,” Kavanagh said.
It isn’t just that DPS gets to make at least the initial decision of what gets made public. The legislation contains another hurdle before it even gets that far.
The legislation requires anyone requesting body camera footage to provide the date and approximate time of the recording, the specific location where the recording occurred, and the name of one or more of the people who are the subject of the video. Kavanagh said this prevents fishing expeditions where people make broad and expensive requests “just because they’re looking for something salacious.”