Public needs access to body cam images

(Bloomington) Herald-Times

A legislative study committee last week heard testimony regarding who should have access to video taken by body cameras worn by law enforcement officers.

Opinions vary, and for good reason.

Issues of investigatory integrity, privacy, public accountability and technological limitations all are involved.

A reasonable answer must be found that does not do violence to any of the main principles involved. But there still are more questions than answers.

Now, police have wide discretion over evidence gathered in the course of an investigation.

The question is, should body camera footage always be handled in that way, giving law enforcement the authority to determine if and when to allow the public access to what the camera caught on the scene?

In a national case such as the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a lot of injuries and property destruction could have been averted had body camera images existed that could have been used to help explain what happened.

If police had something to gain by releasing images had there been any, surely they would have.

If there were images that showed police in a poor light, it’s not so sure they would have been released.

Is that a decision that should be left up solely to the police?

We think not. It’s a matter of accountability.

But police must be able to protect the identities of informants or witnesses who may be caught on the camera recording an incident.

They should have the ability to protect sensitive investigatory information, but it’s unclear how far that protection should go.

What are victim’s rights?

Should police be compelled to release body cam footage if it includes what could be upsetting images of victims of violence? Probably not.

What about images that show the inside of private property?

The technical issue is real. Thousands of hours of data storage would be costly.

Is that how tax money earmarked for public safety should be spent?

These issues will be debated fully in the next few months and possibly years as the importance and usage of body cameras grow, as does the interest in seeing the images they capture.

As a starting point, this record of what happens in public places involving public employees should be considered information that belongs to the public. This is especially true in cases where a firearm is discharged.

Video from a police camera was made available in Bloomington after an officer fired his gun at a suspect after arriving at the scene of a home invasion and sexual assault. The video was dark and didn’t show much, but the audio verified the officer’s account of following proper procedures.

It was important information for the public.

Legislators should lean toward access, with exemptions, to make sure the public stays informed.

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