Legislation birthed and given quick initial approval by a state House panel last week would prohibit public disclosure of most body camera recordings made by Tennessee law enforcement officers for at least a year — and potentially keep video of police misconduct under wraps for even longer.
The move has drawn protests from open government advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union. The bill’s sponsor, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin, said he is not happy with the measure himself and will go “back to the drawing board” to negotiate over revisions in coming days.
As approved by the House State Government Subcommittee, the measure, HB876, would declare a general one-year “moratorium” on public disclosure of any police body camera footage, starting on July 1.
The measure allows public release of recordings that involve an officer’s violation of a law enforcement agency’s administrative policy or “alleged use of unlawful or unnecessary force in violation of state law or the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” — but only after completion of “any investigation” into the individual case as well as completion of any trial or disciplinary proceeding involving the recording — which would take months at minimum and more likely years.
The result would be “to close indefinitely public access to body camera footage related to questions of excessive use of police force or police misconduct,” the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government said in a statement opposing the bill as approved.
Casada told the subcommittee the idea is to use the moratorium year to conduct a full study of the issue and return to the General Assembly with a comprehensive overhaul of state law on body cameras in 2017. His own goal, Casada said, is to protect the privacy of “innocent bystanders” who happen to be on hand when a police camera recording is made, especially children.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, questioned the urgency of acting now, saying he would prefer to wait for a “comprehensive solution” next year. Casada said he wants to protect people’s privacy while a more detailed approach is developed.
Currently the law is unclear, he said, and “there’s just a lot of vagueness, a lot of we-don’t-know kind of things.” Casada said the bill was the result of negotiation by various interested parties, including media representatives, local government representatives and law enforcement officers.
No one spoke directly against the measure in the four-minute discussion before it was approved by the subcommittee. The bill is scheduled to be heard on Tuesday by the full House State Government Committee as well as the Senate State and Local Government Committee. Casada said the interested parties will meet Monday to consider possible revisions.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, called the legislation “misguided.”
“In instances where excessive force or misconduct is alleged, allowing public access to footage quickly is particularly important to restore community trust and protect public safety,” she said. “In city after city we have seen instances where delaying access to such footage does more harm than good.
“Body cameras can be a powerful tool to ensure not only police accountability and transparency, but also to protect officers — but not if access to such footage is broadly and indefinitely restricted, as it would be under this bill.”
TCOG, a nonprofit organization that promotes government transparency, also stressed cases of police misconduct.
“TCOG believes it is imperative that video footage of such incidents be available not only for police disciplinary investigations and legal proceedings, but for the public to reach their own judgments about police conduct,” according to a statement. “However, because of issues raised with such a large volume and variety of video potentially recorded by agencies using body cameras, TCOG also has agreed to support a temporary one-year moratorium on unlimited access to all footage, provided that public access is preserved and ensured for video when use of force and violation of departmental rules are in question.
“We also support and highly encourage a thorough study of the issues surrounding body cameras by the Advisory Committee on Open Government, a 14-member body made up of representatives from civic groups, journalists and government representatives, including representatives from police and sheriff’s agencies.”
Deborah Fisher, executive director of TCOG, said handling of body camera video is a concern for many reasons, but the Casada bill as approved in the subcommittee goes too far in keeping secret recordings of officer misconduct.
“The amended bill that passed out of the subcommittee last week creates a mandatory blackout of any video captured by a body cam that shows a questionable use of force or police misconduct,” Fisher said in an email Saturday. “In other words, if a law enforcement officer used lethal force and killed someone, any police video that captured the incident under this amendment would be kept secret from the public for months or years. We think that’s unacceptable and is bad for everyone, including law enforcement. The bill still needs work.”
Many law enforcement agencies nationwide are using body cameras now, although relatively few in Tennessee so far. The Memphis Police Department has planned purchase of 2,000 cameras for its officers, although there is no definite date for putting them to use. Casada said officials of his hometown, Franklin, has asked him to introduce the legislation.
In presenting the proposal, Casada used what is known as a “caption bill.” As filed, HB876 dealt with provisions of law keeping confidential credit card account numbers and PIN numbers obtained by state and local governments. But all the original language was wiped out by the amendment and replaced with the body camera law changes.
In the Senate, the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood.