Ten Tennessee lawmakers will consider today a bill that would block public access to police body camera footage, even when the use of force and, or a violation of rules and policies is in question.
One might ask: Isn’t shedding light on – and providing credible evidence regarding — questionable police actions the reason so many have rushed to acquire body cameras?
And, isn’t the public outcry for accountability and fairness in difficult police encounters one of the reasons given for spending the considerable cash needed to buy and maintain the body camera programs?
Yes and yes. And while those answers alone are reason enough for the 10 members of the House State Government Committee to vote no on House Bill 876, the legislation is troublesome on many levels.
Consider the ill-timed rush to approval. The worrisome provisions are amendments, added just last week during a subcommittee meeting. In its original form, HB 876 merely addressed privacy concerns regarding credit card account and PIN numbers in police records, defining them as “confidential.” Now, the bill would keep body camera video confidential until the case is both adjudicated and any resulting actions, disciplinary or judicial, completed – often a time period of months to years.
For lawmakers to add in the waning days of the session a provision so vitally important to governing and justice is to ignore the wishes of the public they are sworn to serve.
In the wake of a string of highly publicized incidents that sparked public outrage and violent protests, communities across the country are raising serious questions regarding the credibility of police officers, what exactly is appropriate conduct, and even the integrity of the justice system. To suddenly legalize government efforts to hide evidence that could prove such encounters appropriate or not, even if only for a limited time, fuels public mistrust.
Consider too that while the video collected by body cameras might be valuable in the courtroom, it also offers the potential to invade the privacy of innocent bystanders. That is why a number of open government advocacy groups, including the Tennessee Open Government Coalition and the Tennessee Press Association, have agreed to a one-year moratorium on access to body camera video – except in cases when the use of force or policy violations are questioned. The moratorium would allow time for the state’s Advisory Committee on Open Government to study the issue and make recommendations.
Moving forward now with HB 876 undermines that agreement, but also prevents stakeholders from providing valuable insight, and discounts the purpose of the advisory committee.
Residents of Tennessee have a right to know what their government is doing, both in the halls of the General Assembly and on the streets where officers with badges and guns represent justice, fairness, protection and democracy. All citizens also also have a right to view, read or hear the evidence – and draw their own conclusions.
This bill, as it stands, ignores that right. Instead, it tells the public that the government believes it has better judgment than the people.
We encourage the representatives on the committee — Bill Sanderson of Kenton; Mary Littleton of Dickson; Jeremy Durham of Franklin; Darren Jernigan and Jason Powell, both of Nashville; Curry Todd of Collierville; Bud Hulsey of Kingsport; William Lamberth of Cottontown; and Johnny Shaw of Boivar; and the committee chairman, Bob Ramsey of Maryville — to vote no on HB 876, or at least take no action at all.
Body cameras on police officers and the video footage created can be a valuable tool in law enforcement, but it could too easily could become a cloak for corruption as well, particularly if the evidence collected is buried.