Piecing Together America’s Patchwork Quilt Of Body Cam Laws

February 25, 2016

It’s increasingly likely that the next time you have an encounter with a police officer, he or she will be wearing a body camera. And depending on how things go, you may be left wondering: “Can I get a copy of that video?”

There’s no single answer to that, or other pressing questions, such as whether you can tell an officer you don’t want to be recorded. In the year and a half since the Ferguson, Mo., protests, police departments have been rushing to adopt the cameras.

But when it comes to body camera policies, departments are all over the map.

That’s why you might want to consult these maps. Produced by the Urban Institute, they’re state-by-state breakdowns of local laws governing the recording and releasing of these videos. Those laws aren’t always clear — even to police departments.

“You’ll see individual law enforcement agencies that are developing policies that may or may not even align with state statute,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. She says she and her staff created the interactive feature in part to help local police figure out how body cameras fit into their state’s laws.

The maps show considerable variation on how states balance privacy and the public’s right to know, but there is near-unanimity on one point: Police can usually withhold videos, at least temporarily, to protect pending investigations, or for other “public safety” reasons.

Another thing you’ll notice about the maps is a lot of yellow — denoting proposed legislation. States have been scrambling to draw up new laws specific to body cameras. Many are grappling with unforeseen consequences.

A good example is Washington, a state where a permissive public records law — you can easily request almost any government document — has combined with relatively strict privacy laws to create a huge logistical headache for police.

About a year ago, I reported on a public records advocate who requested every dash cam video produced by the Seattle Police Department, and was planning to make a similar request once the department adopted body cams. SPD responded by experimenting with automatic disclosure — releasing the videos straight to YouTube.

But to comply with privacy rules, the department also blurred key details and removed the audio, a solution that didn’t really satisfy those calling for greater transparency.

So now, because of body cams, the Washington Legislature may end up curbing the state’s open records law. The state House has passed a bill that would make broad, “give-me-everything”-style requests harder, by forcing a requester to specify incidents and pay for the cost of redacting private details from the videos.

La Vigne says similar legislative scrambling is happening around the country.

“We’re seeing that the use of the technology is well ahead of the policy development, and that’s creating real challenges and problems,” La Vigne says.

And states are coming up with very different solutions. There’s nothing like a national consensus on what the rules should be for recording and public access — no clear set of nationally accepted “body camera rights” that you might eventually see written into the scripts of police procedurals on TV.

“I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” La Vigne says. “State rights govern supreme, so I don’t see any movement toward a common definition of these very thorny issues.”

So your best bet, the next time you’re wondering about that police video of you, is to consult the Urban Institute’s maps. But do it soon, because their research is good only through January 2016, and the laws are still very much in flux.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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