Police body cameras bill ignores public’s right to know

The use of body cameras by police departments across Indiana is increasing as more of them are realizing the value. Recordings can aid in investigations, as well as document actions by officers and individuals in the event questions arise.

West Lafayette Police Chief Jason Dombkowski testified before state lawmakers last summer that once body cameras were assigned to officers in his department, the number of use-of-force incidents dramatically decreased.

Seymour Police Department’s 39 full-time officers, including two school resource officers, have been using body cams for more than five years. They are useful and a good tool for the department, Police Chief Bill Abbott said.

The nearly 30 officers and reserve officers with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department also have had body cams for about five years now, Sheriff Michael Carothers said. The jailers, however, have had them even longer, he said.

Legislation filed in the Indiana House of Representatives, however, threatens to undermine the good that police body cameras can do.

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, has filed House Bill 1019, which concerns the public’s ability to view or obtain copies of police body camera video.

The bill benefits law enforcement officials because it gives them the discretion to deny all requests for a copy of body camera video. The bill would allow a person who was involved in the video or the family of someone killed in the police incident to inspect the video but not receive a copy.

In practical terms, a sheriff or police chief could deny a request for a copy of a video to avoid the hassle or because it might cast their department in an unfavorable light or show inappropriate or illegal behavior.

The incentive, then, is for law enforcement to declare a video confidential unless it exonerates the officer.

That does not equate to full transparency, a standard to which public agencies such as police departments should be held.

Our hope is that legislators would be open to suggestions.

The Hoosier State Press Association, of which The Tribune is a member, has offered recommendations that balance transparency, privacy concerns and the ability of police to perform their jobs:

  • All footage or digital data collected by police cameras should be considered public records as defined by state law.
  • Raw footage would be divided into “flagged” and “non-flagged” categories.
  • Flagged footage would cover discharge of a firearm, use of force by police, arrest or detainment, death or bodily harm, interactions where a complaint has been filed or requests made under the Access to Public Records Act. The presumption would be that the public would have the right to inspect flagged footage, with some exceptions such as compromising an ongoing investigation, identifying an undercover police officer, nudity or when a juvenile is arrested or detained.
  • Non-flagged footage would include all other footage and data, and the presumption would be it is confidential and at the discretion of the law enforcement agency to release.
  • If police want to withhold flagged video, a three-person panel composed of the state’s public access counselor, a law enforcement representative and member of the public or media would rule on request.

The bill introduced by Mahan nullifies the potential for good that body cameras can do because of the opportunity for police to hide embarrassing video.

We urge state lawmakers to consider the greater good of the public and consider the recommendations by the Hoosier State Press Association.

At issue

More law enforcement departments are using requiring officers to use body cameras.

Our point

Legislation should not undermine the good that police body cameras can do.