Body cameras may be in the future for local police if proposed law passes

Published 8:27 am Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Senate Judiciary Committee met Monday to discuss, among other issues, the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers and public access to that footage.
A bill proposing the requirement of body cameras filed by state Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis and state Rep. Brenda Gilmour, D-Nashville was shelved earlier this year.
Locally, the Elizabethton Police Department has no body cams at this time, but Elizabethton Police Chief Greg Workman said the time may come for them to be implemented.
“It benefits the public and the police department, and we want to help our officers and give them the technology that is out there,” Workman said.
In time, when discussions are resolved, the bill may go to the state Senate for approval. If it passes, and funding is available, Carter County residents may begin to see officers equipped with body cameras, Workman said.
In the meantime, he said the department is planning to have the two school resource officers at Elizabethton High School and T.A. Dugger Jr. High demo body cams.
“We want to see how beneficial the cameras would be for us,” Workman said. “We want quality to go along with quantity, and we would need over 40 of those.”
Many states have adopted new policies regarding body cams to increase police accountability with the public and to protect police officers; ten states have passed new laws regarding the public’s right to access the footage.
The Tennessee proposal, S.B. 868/H.B. 712 would amend TCA Title 38 and states that it “requires law enforcement officers to wear wide angle body cameras that record video footage while on duty, if funded by grants, private donations, or federal funds.”
The proposed bill states that if funding is not available from grants, donations or federal funding, departments will not be required to get the cameras.
Although Workman said the price per camera ranges from $400 to $1,500, “the biggest cost is going to be in data retention.”
Law enforcement officials must upload the data to a server, and they must be able to store it all. Workman said information technology personnel might have to be hired to manage the data, and that it would have to be funded from an outside source.
“That is a lot more expensive than body cams themselves,” said Workman.
He compared adaptation to body cameras to the transition of using dash cameras.
“It’s like any new piece of equipment, but after a while I think we would adapt,” he said.
In a town of 14,000 in which very few complaints, if any, are made about police officers, some wonder if there is a need or desire for body cameras. Workman said the only types of complaints they usually get are made regarding citations.
Also at the center of the decision to require body cameras is the discussion of the release of footage that contains criminal evidence during an ongoing investigation.
Discussion among officials from law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Tennessee Press Association and the national director of Taser, a camera company, address First Amendment rights issues like privacy, the cost of redaction, police discretion and footage retention periods.
Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said that law enforcement personnel should be forthcoming with appropriate body cam footage and that it should be accessible in a timely manner. Some issues that she said people have encountered are high prices and lengthy time for footage to be redacted—meaning that citizens’ faces are blurred out, or other edits are made to protect privacy.
TCOG takes the stance that police departments should bear the cost of redactions, because they may otherwise effectively shut down access to footage.
“What we have seen continually is very high per-hour labor and technical fees, which works to the benefit of people releasing the footage,” she said.
Though some of the fees and schedules may be legitimate, she said she feels the footage is often over-redacted and that if captured in public, much of it does not need redaction in the first place.
“We think there will be situations where citizens’ identifications need to be protected, or, for example, if police interview a confidential informant,” she said. “I think we have to be very careful about exemptions because it would be very easy to eliminate accountability of police action. We’re concerned about citizens’ privacy too, but we think there would be other ways of going about that.”

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