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Body Cams Embraced, But Who Will Have Access to Footage?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 05, 2015 10:01 AM

With accusations of police brutality leading to unrest from Ferguson to Baltimore, many have called for law enforcement to wear body cameras. The thought is that body cam recordings will provide greater accountability, particularly following incidents such as the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, under highly disputed circumstances.

Who, though, will have access to that footage? A new bill being considered in California could prevent police officers from reviewing their own recordings when they have been accused of misconduct. At least, that was the idea initially. After resistance from law enforcement, the bill has been amended to allow officers to review body cam footage where not prevented by local policy.

A Controversial Proposition

Supporters of the unamended law, the version limiting access to footage, argue that it's essential to preventing police from crafting stories to fit the recording. If officers are allowed to review body cam footage after an incident, they will then be able to "get their stories straight," rather than providing individual accounts of their state of mind, advocates argue.

The proposed law has met strong resistance from law enforcement groups. Several officers' associations have spoken out against the bill, saying it unfairly presumes that police will misrepresent their experiences based on body cam footage. So far, they've been successful at watering down or removing many of the original provisions.

Whether California adopts the law or not, the debate is a preview of the sort of disagreements likely to face policymakers as body cams become more common. Not only will states and localities have to address whether officers have access to footage, they will also need to decide when and how any of that documentation should be made public -- whether, for example, it should be made available for journalists or if it should be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Video Evidence Often Doesn't Speak for Itself

While greater use of body cams might help reassure the public that police are interested in honesty and transparency, when cases actually reach court, video evidence doesn't guarantee a particular outcome. The beating of Rodney King lead to much greater civil disturbance than has been seen in Baltimore or elsewhere, but the fact that it was caught on video didn't prevent the officers from being acquitted.

The same is true for officers involved in Eric Garner's death. Though the choke hold was captured on video, a grand jury declined to indict. Which is to say, video evidence, like all evidence, is always up to interpretation.

Whether greater use of body cameras will lead to more accountability or transparency remains to be seen. What does seem clear is that efforts to prevent officers from obtaining footage before speaking to investigators will meet with strong resistance.

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