SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – As recently as May 11, the California Assembly discussed and passed a bill designed to encourage public-records releases of police body-camera video. Now a state Senate committee unanimously passed a bill requiring police departments who have chosen to use body cameras to establish procedures for footage to be released.
Last week, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, saw his Assembly Bill 748 totally reworded in a process known as gut-and-amend. On Tuesday, the state Senate’s public safety committee took its first look at the new measure after delaying the hearing until the bill had been in print for at least 72 hours per a new voter-approved requirement.
The new bill is not likely to draw unanimous support as it advances. In place of allowing departments the leeway to craft their own policies, AB 748 attempts to mandate a statewide blanket policy that regulates the release of footage and the ways in which departments can use and store the data.
Randy Perry, legislative advocate for the firm Aaron Reed & Associates – which represents 62,000 police officers – said that more than any of several complaints about the bill, his clients did not appreciate the gut-and-amend process which changed a bill they supported to one they opposed.
Advocates view the measure as an essential tool to ensure accountability of police in accordance with the California Public Records Act, which does not currently have requirements for the release of body-camera footage. Approximately 20 percent of California police officers wear body cameras.
“Currently, the law allows agencies to enact a complete ban and refuse to release any footage,” said Nikki Moore on behalf of the California News Publishers Association. “Accountability and transparency are the purpose (of body cameras), and it is contrary to that purpose to withhold all footage.”
The California News Publishers Association proposed the bill, citing the difficulty journalists have encountered in receiving body-camera footage of police officers accused of excessive use of force and shootings.
“Body cameras are a complicated issue for the ACLU,” said Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the group. “AB 748 would help fulfill their promise of serving as a check on police by requiring disclosure of potential misconduct.”
Buchen said allowing police agencies to set their own rules has resulted in the practice of releasing footage that exonerates or glorifies police, while officer-involved violence is frequently withheld from the public.
Addressing this issue was a major reason for the creation of the law, Ting said.
“Unfortunately, we as the public have a very limited, and at times arbitrary, access to body-camera footage,” he said. “Our bill attempts to codify statewide policy so the public can get access to body-camera footage but, as a compromise to law enforcement, they can withhold body-camera footage when nondisclosure is greater than public concern.”
The measure initially established a 90-day period in which police would be required to make footage available unless they can demonstrate the public interest in withholding outweighs the interest in viewing it. In committee on Tuesday, the bill was again amended to extend the period to 120 days and added an ACLU-supported ban on the use of facial-recognition software and biometrics by police.
Several police representatives and district attorneys disagree that the purpose of the cameras is to provide accountability and transparency, but rather are effective investigative tools just like dashboard cameras.
“The primary goal of law enforcement is to enforce the laws of the United States and California,” Perry, of Aaron Reed & Associates, said.
Perry said one issue with the disclosure portion of the law is that it does not allow for redaction, which could be essential to investigations and for the purposes of protecting the privacy of people who are captured on video but are not suspects.
Several representatives of police organizations took issue with the ban of use of facial-recognition software and biometrics, as these new tools may assist police in identifying witnesses and suspects.
“I get where the ACLU sponsors are looking at where we might want to use that footage to catch other people,” Perry said. “We want to be able to use it to enforce the laws of California – often. I don’t understand why that would be in there, as it just has nothing to do with [California Public Records Act].”
Cory Salzillo, policy director for the California State Sheriff’s Association, said the discretion to release footage needs to reside with the agencies.
“There are any number of possible permutations that could exist as to why a video should be released or shouldn’t be released,” Salzillo said. “It could otherwise be evidence that is now out in the public tainting that investigation.”
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley and the committee chair, said the bill still needed work before moving forward to the Senate Rules Committee.