Every patrolling police officer in Florida may soon be required to have a body camera, but the ACLU says proposed restrictions on how footage can be released to the public does more to protect police misconduct than fight it.
For weeks, Rep. Shevrin Jones has been pushing House Bill 47, which would require cops to wear body cams while on patrol. It has so far gained widespread approval from state reps, but there has also been a lot of pushback over details, such as when the cameras should be turned on and what footage can be released to the public. And Fort Lauderdale's Sen. Chris Smith is cosponsoring a bill that does the latter with SB 248, dubbed the "Police and Citizen Protection Act," a state bill that places restrictions on how footage can be released to the public. That bill passed committee Monday night, and some are criticizing it for amounting to a "watering down" of police accountability measures.
"Cameras will overwhelmingly catch good cops doing their normal day-to-day work," Michelle Richardson, director of public policy at ACLU Florida, tells New Times. "But in those rare circumstances when you have a record of a cop doing something wrong, why would you not want to release that?"
SB 248 describes six scenarios in which body cam footage cannot be released to the public:
Richardson says these restrictions are unnecessary and overly broad. There is already policy in place that protects privacy when it comes to body cams, such as domestic violence incidents, and police misconduct can happen inside a home and children under age 12 can be victims of police brutality as well. For example, the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot by police in Cleveland: Although public cameras were able to catch that incident on tape, which showed police driving up to Rice and shooting immediately shooting him seemingly without warning, this proposed law would not allow for any body cam footage of the incident to be released without police consent.
And that decision-making power granted to police could pose more problems.
"If this was really about privacy, it would apply to what officers can practically release on their own as well," Richardson says. "So this is really just about shielding police misconduct. If police want to control the narrative, they can release what they want."
Smith, a cosponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment.
Currently, Florida law already has strong restrictions on what footage can be released. Sunshine laws do not allow for the public release of audio or video of a person getting killed, even if police did the killing. If a police shooting is caught by a dashcam or body cam, only the victim's next of kin is allowed to obtain the evidence.
In addition to how footage can be released, there's concern over when cameras should be turned on. Police understandably don't want to have every moment of their lives on tape. After all, when could they complain about the Mrs.?
"Our concern is if the camera is on and it's required to be on through the entire shift, then it will capture video and audio when you have roll calls or when you're walking down the hallway or just as you're going through your day," said Gary Bradford, a lobbyist for the Florida Police Benevolent Association. "You're on a lunch break, you're in the privacy of your own car with your partner, you're having a conversation about having a fight with your wife in the morning, or something along those lines, and we just think those things are private and they shouldn't be part of the discussion."
Richardson says that these concerns are exaggerated and that several police departments around the country, including Pensacola and Bal Harbour in Florida, have implemented measures to protect valid privacy.
And Jones has said the cameras should be turned on during any "law enforcement-related encounters and activities."
Follow Ray Downs on Twitter:
E-mail him at [email protected].