Will Pennsylvania make police body camera footage impossible to obtain?

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

Any new iteration like SB 976 of 2016 would limit citizens’ ability to obtain body camera footage. Photo from WESA.

Pennsylvania’s state legislature is again considering policies that govern police body cameras. In the fall, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 976 — an attempt to standardize policies for “recordings by law enforcement officers.” But the session ended before the House could consider it for a vote. There are now indications that some version of SB 976 could come up again for consideration.

At a glance, last session’s bill looks reasonable. It would let police officers record inside a private home when a body camera has been activated, and it would clear up confusion over whether officers are required to inform everyone in a public place that they’re being recorded when a body camera is turned on. But there’s a problem: The bill would also make it nearly impossible for citizens to acquire the kind of footage that has exposed disturbing police overreach, lead to dropped civilian charges, and forced criminal proceedings against police officers in other states.

Under this previous proposal — introduced by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, along with two former cops, Senator Randy Vulakovich and Representative Dom Costa — body camera footage would be withheld under the state’s Right-To-Know Law if an agency made the decision that the footage was part of an ongoing investigation. Such a rule could render most relevant footage inaccessible, since one imagines that most of the sought after footage will connect to incidents that have already begun to receive scrutiny. The old bill would also allow agencies to charge $250 for the right to appeal a decision to withhold footage.

And it would also deny any request made by anyone who can’t identify every individual in the video.

On that last part: The argument to support a requestor identifying individuals in a police video revolves around protecting the privacy of crime witnesses and onlookers. Why shouldn’t policy be written, the argument goes, to protect the rights of those who don’t want to be identified? It turns out that there’s an answer to this question that doesn’t involve making footage impossible to obtain.

Companies such as Taser International — which provides body cameras and video evidence infrastructure to several Pennsylvania police departments — offer a monthly subscription plan that includes automated redaction, and in fact uses as a selling point how remarkably easy it is to redact video for records requests. Just a reminder to the legislators who will be mulling over a new version of this legislation in the new session: The RTKL’s redaction section states that agencies “may not deny access to the record if the information which is not subject to access is able to be redacted.”

ACLU-PA’s Communications Director, Andy Hoover, told The Legal Intelligencer in October that SB 976’s public access rules amount to a “byzantine process.” As many smart people like Hoover have written before, it’s a good idea to establish consistent policy around police body camera use. But shielding body camera footage from public view won’t help to increase transparency, and it won’t force police to “document how officers conduct themselves,” as Senator Greenleaf told the Intelligencer that body camera footage might do.

On the contrary, if legislation like the old bill becomes law, it would make police transparency in Pennsylvania akin to body camera footage: all but impossible to obtain.

IN OTHER NEWS

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

Wait times for prisoner mental health treatment have not improved, says Vic Walczak, ACLU-PA’s legal director. Photo from The Inquirer.
  • From The Philadelphia Inquirer: “A year after ACLU settlement, little change in delays for court-ordered mental-health treatment”

“In a bid to reduce the amount of time spent waiting in jail by mentally ill individuals declared incompetent to stand trial, the Jan. 27, 2016, settlement required the state to create 60 new treatment spots within 120 days and an additional 60 spots within 180 days. Plus, within 90 days of the agreement, the state was supposed to make $1 million available for supportive housing in Philadelphia, the settlement said. Spent on housing vouchers, that money was expected to provide 50 to 80 beds. Given the DHS’s lack of transparency, it’s unclear exactly how much of that has been done.”

“Pennsylvania has a problem. According to a recently released report initiated by the state House, ‘The Commonwealth’s rates of expulsion and out-of-school suspension are higher than the national average. Further, studies have shown that excessively punitive discipline for misbehavior can result in long-term consequences for the children involved, especially the youngest ones… Policies relating to expulsion and out-of-school suspension are those in need of the most scrutiny.” On October 28, Pennsylvania’s Joint State Government Commission, the research service for the state legislature, released Discipline Policies in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools. The study, a year in the making, was developed at the request of the PA House (House Resolution 540).”

“The system was developed to help law enforcement fight drug dealers, and Lebanon County District Attorney Dave Arnold said it’s a “critical” tool for cutting off their ability and financial motivation to sell drugs. But some people who lose property, like Elizabeth Young, may not be involved in drug selling at all. If people try to rescue their property, critics say they enter a complex and confusing legal process with the deck stacked against them. Since it isn’t a criminal case, there are few legal protections, no right to an attorney, and no presumption of innocence. And critics say police departments are making a profit in the process.”

“Much of the increase in the prison population has been driven by the war on drugs. Some legislators acknowledge that mass incarceration has not solved the problem. [ACLU-PA Communications Director Andrew Hoover] says now they need to do something about it. ‘There hasn’t been the kind of restructuring of sentencing that’s necessary to fulfill that promise, to make drugs more of a public-health issue than a criminal issue,’ he added.”

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