How much is that public record worth to you?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A new Pennsylvania bill would make body camera video a tool for prosecutors — not the public. Photo via Flickr user North Charleston.

Pennsylvania is swiftly pushing forward a very bad bill — Senate Bill 560 — that will seriously hamper civilians’ ability to obtain footage from police body-worn cameras. The Appeal has addressed body camera issues before (this week, even), but SB560 is quickly progressing. A vote could happen in Harrisburg as soon as next week. So we’re gonna address it again.

Body cameras have been widely available to the policing market since about 2007. Some departments started using them early, such as the BART Police Department after Oscar Grant’s killing in 2009. But a groundswell of interest didn’t emerge until August 2014.

When white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed a black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Wilson’s story — what he said about why he was justified in killing Brown — was questionable. Protests erupted nationwide. You know the story.

Among many other conversations about policing and race that emerged in the wake of that shooting, one focused on body cameras. There was, among many who paid attention, a consensus that body camera video would have provided an unbiased perspective in Ferguson that was sorely lacking. Both police and civilians seemed to concur: If body camera footage could tell the real story — and be shown to the public — then there would be less of a question about what happened between Wilson and Brown. In general, there would be less testilying by cops. There would be fewer false reports of police misconduct. It would be a win for everyone.

And indeed, that’s where things went: Thousands of police representatives began pushing their leaders to purchase body cameras, and so did civilians. The body camera market expanded exponentially. New companies were founded, and old police companies rushed to get into the business. Tens of millions in taxpayer dollars were made available in federal funding for body cameras. The market exploded — in large part because both police and civilians seemed to agree that body camera footage could hold both cops and civilians accountable.

Police leaders were, in fact, at the forefront of this movement toward transparency through police body cameras.

“A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its offcers are a matter of public record,” wrote Chuck Wexler, in a pioneering 2014 document by the Police Executive Research Forum that encouraged best practices for body camera use. Wexler continued: “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request — not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”

Fast forward to now. Pennsylvania’s legislature is working to walk back one of the main premises that made body cameras agreeable to both civilians and police in the first place: their accessibility to the public.

Senate Bill 560 — which I implore you to read — will do a number of things that run counter to basic principles of transparency. It will insure that body camera video falls outside the state’s Right To Know Law, for one thing — meaning that the rules allowing civilians to obtain policies, meeting minutes, and even internal emails sent to and from government employees, will not apply to video produced by police.

SB560 won’t let any civilian request body camera video that’s more than 60 days old.

If a request is denied — for reasons as vague as the video “contains potential evidence” — it will cost civilians $125 just to appeal the decision. And of course there’s no guarantee that they’ll succeed in getting the video after the appeal.

Pennsylvania is not alone in pushing a transparency-killing law to limit access to body camera video. In September last year, North Carolina passed into law a similarly terrible bill.

But we don’t need to follow in that state’s footsteps.

If Darren Wilson had been wearing a body camera in 2014 — and if Missouri’s laws were the same as what Pennsylvania’s legislature hopes to pass — it’s unlikely that the video from his interaction with Michael Brown would have been available to the public. Protests would have erupted. The cameras would have been useless.

Having such a law would, indeed, make body cameras essentially useless for civilians. They would instead be tools for cops and district attorneys to put more people behind bars.

That’s not what anyone protesting in Ferguson wanted in 2014, and it’s not what anyone still paying attention wants today.

SB560 is a bad bill that should vanish. Stay tuned to aclupa.org to find out how you can help make that happen.

PLUG

(An ACLU-PA criminal justice event you should know about.)

Join us in Philadelphia to #DECARCERATEDA.

  • ACLU-PA: “District Attorney Candidate Forum — Philly DA for the People”

Philly needs a district attorney who will bring a new vision for justice. Come hear what the candidates running to be the next Philadelphia district attorney have to say about ending cash bail, bringing transparency and accountability to the office, protecting our immigrant communities, and more.

WHEN: Tuesday, April 18, 6 p.m. — 8 p.m. (Event will start promptly at 6 p.m.)
WHERE: Arch Street United Methodist Church, 55 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19107

ASL interpreter and Spanish-language interpreter will be provided.

Free child care will be available.

Sponsored by the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, a diverse set of groups representing tens of thousands of Philadelphia voters and communities. This coalition is working to hold all the district attorney candidates accountable to their communities’ fundamental need for justice and respect. More about the coalition and its platform is available here: www.phillydaforthepeople.org

EXCERPTS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

How effective was a $3.5 million grant to lessen Philly’s incarceration problem? Photo via The Inquirer.

  • The Inquirer: Has a bold reform plan helped to shrink Philly’s prison population?

“The number of inmates has fallen nearly 12 percent, from 7,486 last April to 6,603 as of last month, according to data released Wednesday by the Managing Director’s Office. The prison population numbered as many as 8,301 as recently as early 2015. The dropoff has earned praise from even hardened critics of the various arms of the local justice system. This has been no small task. Philadelphia has the highest per-capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the nation. About 30 percent of those sitting behind bars are awaiting trial.”

  • Daily News: “Locked up for being poor: Can next Philly DA fix the bail mess?”

“With seven of the eight DA candidates facing off in a May 16 Democratic primary, three of those candidates — Joe Kahn, Lawrence Krasner, and Michael Untermeyer — have promised to work to completely eliminate cash bail in the city, and most of the other candidates support lesser varieties of bail reform, such as dropping the practice for lower-level non-violent crimes. To many advocates of criminal justice reform, the move seems like a no-brainer. For one thing, it would save Philadelphia taxpayers millions of dollars; officials say that as many of half of the 6,600 people now locked up in the city’s jails are there because they’re awaiting trial and unable to afford cash bail. In many cases, advocates say, the inmates could gain their freedom for as little as $500 or less — but in the city with America’s highest rate of deep poverty, the figure might as well be a million dollars. ‘It’s just such an obvious thing — the question of whether someone is a danger to the community has nothing to do with how much money they have,’ said Patrick J. Egan, a partner in the Fox Rothschild law firm who moderated a Philadelphia forum last week on ending cash bail. ‘Poor folks stay in jail and rich folks don’t.’”

  • New York Times: “‘It Did Not Stick’: The First Federal Effort to Curb Police Abuse”

“‘Pittsburgh could very well have been stuck in the ’60s with no computers if it hadn’t had a consent decree,’ he said. The Justice Department had a list of demands — for instance, that every passenger’s race and sex be recorded during traffic stops. Chief McNeilly protested, questioning the practicality and legality of such a requirement. In the end, only the driver’s information was tracked. The Justice Department also required an ‘early warning system,’ opposed by the union, that would flag officers prone to using force. ‘Bob McNeilly was like a test pilot in the Mercury flight program,’ said Chuck Wexler, the president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group of law enforcement professionals. ‘No one knew what an “early warning system” was, how to build it or what to measure.’”

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