Critics say the bill hampers the public’s ability to hold police accountable, especially when the person asking for access to footage is not a relative or is a member of the media.
A newly proposed Indiana bill would allow police departments to decide whether to release video footage captured on body-worn or dashboard cameras to the general public.
House Bill 1019 immediately drew criticism from the Hoosier State Press Association, which argued the bill could undermine the purpose of such cameras in the first place: to increase police transparency and allow the public to hold law enforcement accountable.
The proposed legislation would compel police departments to show recordings of law enforcement actions only to either the person depicted in the video or that person’s relatives or attorney. For anyone else, the decision to release is up to the department.
Should the agency say no, the bill says, the person requesting the video would have to take the department to court and argue for the video’s release.
That’s a potentially costly option without a guaranteed result, said Steve Key, executive director of the press association.
“When you get to the crux of it, it’s still a bill that leaves all the cards in the law enforcement’s hands,” Key said during testimony Tuesday, when lawmakers began looking at the bill.
Key said that some police departments only would be motivated to release a video when it clearly exonerates their officer, adding: “The public has a right to know what police departments are doing.”
“The bill is probably not perfect,” said Rep. Kevin Mahan, the bill’s author, during a hearing before the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform on Tuesday. But he added, “It puts a statewide structure in place for those agencies that choose to have their officers use body cameras.”
The bill does not mandate that all law enforcement agencies in the state equip officers with body cameras. For those that do, the legislation requires the agencies to show their recordings of police encounters twice to anyone depicted in the recording. That provision also applies to homeowners when the interior of their homes are shown, said Mahan, a Hartford City Republican.
Despite that provision, critics say the bill hampers the public’s ability to hold police accountable, especially when the person asking for access to footage is not a relative or is a member of the media.
Key suggested that the language be tweaked to require police departments to justify why they should conceal a video rather than require the public to justify why they should have access to it. Key also supported the creation of a state panel that could rule on the release of disputed video instead of requiring a court order.
Lawmakers first considered the question of who is allowed to view police camera footage last summer, when a bipartisan study committee listened to more than six hours of testimony about what happens to video once it’s recorded.
The issue has become increasingly common across the country in recent years, especially as body-worn cameras are adopted by more police departments. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, for example, recently was allocated about $250,000 for such cameras by the city, and plans to equip some officers with them this year.
Video footage is seen as a way to provide objective evidence, particularly in situations where police use deadly force. Some studies show that departments that use body cameras use force less often, and the cameras are increasingly seen as a way to build public trust.
Advocates of police reform have used camera footage as justification for their claims. Late last year, dashboard camera footage of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer attracted widespread scrutiny. Prosecutors charged the officer with murder. Following the release of the video, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced comprehensive changes to how the department trains its officers to use force.
Key, of the press association, said even the provisions in the proposed Indiana bill that allow for release are concerning. While the person shown in the footage can view the video, the bill does not also require the department to give them a copy. That decision is up to the department.
That language, Key said, could create the following scenario: Should the person or relative contend that the video depicts an officer behaving badly, they would not have a copy of the video to publicly support their claim.
If the person shown in the video is denied a copy, they could take the agency to court. Unlike the general public, the person also would be entitled to recoup attorneys’ fees if they successfully argue for the copy.
Others supported the current language of the bill. Rep. Wendy McNamara, an Evansville Republican, questioned whether the public or media should have access to footage that could potentially compromise the privacy of a person shown in the video, such as a witness to a crime.
“Which becomes more important?” she asked. “The privacy aspect of the individuals involved in the situation, or the public’s need to, you know, hang a rope around peoples’ necks at the jump of a video?”
McNamara continued: “If we had a sense that the media was going to be impartial — was not going to sensationalize it — then I wouldn’t have a problem. But that’s not the era we’re living in right now.”
The proposed legislation also creates rules for retaining police recordings. Agencies would need to retain unaltered video for at least 180 days after the date of the recording, or even longer in some cases — like if the subject of the video asks them to, or if the recording is used in criminal, civil or administrative proceedings. That time limit would allow for a person shown in the video or their relatives to file a tort claim if they chose.
“I’m pretty comfortable with where this bill is,” Mahan said, adding that if he sees a pattern of police “really bucking what the intent here is and not being transparent, I’ll be back. You can rest assured of that.”
The bill passed unanimously out of its first reading in the committee. The bill will head to the House floor for further consideration.