Police body cam bill that would restrict certain footage from public passes committee

Posted at 7:46 PM, Feb 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-22 21:48:53-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah legislative committee has moved a proposed law forward that lays out who’s in charge of coming up with rules for police body cameras and what kind of footage can’t be released to the public.

While some said the law is long overdue, others question if it overreaches the boundaries.

Utah police officers fitted with body cameras have caught dramatic footage at different incidents.

In one case, officers fought with an arson suspect inside a burning home. There’s also footage of an officer talking to a kidnapped child inside a stolen car.

There’s many examples of body cam footage that show moments before officer-involved shootings.

Police departments have released that footage to the media and public, giving everyone a glimpse inside these situations, which has some lawmakers concerned.

“I think when you’re dealing with sensitive images, with children, when you’re dealing with medical conditions, especially graphic violence or death or nudity, I think that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

Senate Bill 94, which he sponsored, would make some of that body cam footage shot in certain situations private and not available to the public.

Speakers from both sides weighed in during the Monday hearing.

While Thatcher sees it as protecting privacy, some groups like the ACLU argued it goes against public interest—especially in cases of officer-involved shootings that might be banned from release because the body cam footage could fall under that provision.

“The language that’s in the bill right now, I think goes too far in terms of making documents presumptively private,” said Marina Lowe, with ACLU Utah.

Others also said during the hearing that the state’s current public records information request system, GRAMA, already does a sufficient job screening what should and shouldn’t be released.

SB 94 also calls for setting statewide policies and standards for any department using body cams, and it hands the authority of writing those rules to the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Division.

That provision has also sparked debate.

While some say POST is the best agency to handle the rule-writing, others say it should be up to lawmakers.

“It really doesn’t make sense to have these standards be decided by a law enforcement agency, it really makes sense for the debate to be had at the state level with state policymakers,” Lowe said.

But, police departments spoke up at the hearing, explaining that by designating POST, the bill isn’t leaving it all up to them to run the rules.

“POST is not a law enforcement entity necessarily, they are the overseer of law enforcement,” asserted Michael Millard, President of the Salt Lake Police Association who is an officer with Salt Lake City Police.

“This bill is not something that allows law enforcement to go forward and do whatever we want to do with a body camera policy,” said Tom Ross, President of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, and Chief of Bountiful Police.

In the end, the Senate committee gave SB 94 the OK, though committee member Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said the bill needed changes before going in front of the full Senate.

“I want to send a very clear message: I will not vote for this bill in its current form on the Senate floor,” he said.

Thatcher said they plan to make amendments in language, specifically to address the concerns with GRAMA and video privacy.

Another issue voiced by lawmakers—concerns over whether there’s enough time to make changes to the bill and for it to make it through both the Senate and House before the end of the session in two weeks.

This is the second body camera bill in the Legislature. The other, House Bill 300, also mandates that departments have a written body camera policy in place.

HB 300 establishes guidelines for when an officer can turn on and off a body camera, and goes over prohibited uses of body cams.

That bill made it out of a House committee and is making its way through the House floor.