HANCOCK COUNTY — Proposed legislation would make it more difficult for the public to obtain footage from police body cameras, despite local departments saying they bought the devices to promote transparency.
Debates continued at the statehouse this week over House Bill 1019, which restricts who may inspect law enforcement recordings and establishes parameters for police departments storing the footage. The bill passed the House on a 65-30 vote last month. Now, a state senate committee is considering overhauling the legislation.
Before the bill can become law, it must pass the Senate and be approved by Gov. Mike Pence.
As the bill reads now, a person seeking police footage must prove releasing it is in the public interest and obtain a court order with a judge’s signature. This week, a Senate committee considered changing the bill to put the burden on law enforcement to justify why a video should be barred from public viewing.
Hancock County’s largest law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff’s department and Greenfield Police Department, do not have body cameras, but officers at some of the county’s smaller departments — Fortville, New Palestine and Wilkinson — use the equipment and tout its benefits.
The Fortville Police Department purchased body cameras for the department’s nine full-time officers and seven reserve officers in 2014 as a tool for collecting evidence, Chief Bill Knauer said. If a case were to end up in front a jury, video evidence puts people in an officer’s place at the crime scene, he said.
Per department protocol, Fortville’s officers turn over all body camera and in-car dash camera recording at the conclusion of an investigation; but videos are not released while investigations are ongoing, Knauer said.
The devices have other benefits, police say.
New Palestine Police Chief Robert Ehle said the cameras promote transparency but also have had the unanticipated effect of improving interactions with the public; citizens are more respectful, he said, when they know they are being filmed.
The department in New Palestine bought one camera in 2014 to test it out, then purchased four more for the rest of the department within six months.
The bill’s author, Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, said police officers deal with situations and scenes the public “doesn’t need to see,” which is why he proposed the bill aimed at making it harder for citizens to access the footage.
Knauer said he can’t disagree with that notion, but a decision about whether to release videos that are deemed gruesome should be handled on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Not everyone believes that law enforcement should decide what should and shouldn’t be private.
Opponents of the bill, including Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association, are encouraged by the changes the Senate committee is mulling, saying they’re a step in the right direction.
Current laws surrounding police records don’t specify how long departments should keep copies of body camera or dash camera footage, Key said. The current law also gives cops the option to deny releasing records because a case is under investigation without specifying what “under investigation” means, he said.
New legislation was necessary, but House Bill 1019 favors law enforcement, Key said.
Key agrees with some of the provisions in the original version of the bill, including a line that requires agencies to obscure video that contains dead bodies or people under the age of 18 and requires police departments to retain video for at least 180 days.
Waiting until an investigation has closed or until court proceedings have begun to release police records is too long to wait, Key said. The videos often reveal the truth of a situation, and the public has a right to uncover that truth, he said.
Key visited the statehouse for the hearing this week and was pleased to see the debate over public access was advancing.
Committee Chairman Brent Steele of Bedford said the bill won’t advance to the full Senate without the changes, on which the committee could vote next week.