This commentary first appeared on the website of Governing magazine. It is reprinted here with Governing’s permission.
By Steven D. Zansberg
Imagine if Congress had funded the National Institutes of Health to develop an antibiotic to combat a contagious disease. And, using millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, such a drug was created. But then local health-care providers improperly administered it to patients, thereby exacerbating the spread of the infection. No doubt, there would be a public outcry.
Yet that is precisely the situation today with a different taxpayer-funded treatment for a different “illness” besetting our society: profound distrust in the integrity of our police. In 2014, in the wake of the riots following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama urged Congress to provide $75 million to help police agencies across the nation deploy body-worn cameras to capture the interactions between peace officers and citizens, part of a broader effort to restore public trust. Ultimately, Congress did provide a substantial sum, $20 million.
Yet across the nation, state legislatures and local police departments have refused to administer the treatment. They’ve enacted laws and adopted policies precluding the public from seeing the recordings made by these cameras. In the past year alone, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina have declared body-worn camera recordings exempt from their open-records laws, and several other states have imposed severe restrictions on public access.
These non-disclosure mandates seek to protect the privacy of the citizens captured on the recording, conceal the identities of confidential informants, and avoid further traumatization of crime victims. While those are legitimate concerns, a narrower withholding regime – requiring, for example, the blurring of residents’ faces, alteration of voices or partial withholding of recordings as the circumstances warrant – could adequately protect those interests while still fulfilling a primary objective of body-worn cameras: to restore and maintain public trust in our police by opening their official, on-duty conduct to public scrutiny.
At a time when the brave men and women who don police uniforms every day are literally under attack, it is essential that steps be taken, immediately, to shore up public support for them. Recordings made by body-worn cameras will, in the vast majority of the cases, exonerate the police by showing that their conduct was justified. As in any other profession, the few bad apples in the barrel are the exception. But keeping all of the recordings under wraps (or worse, releasing only those recordings that reflect appropriate police conduct) only serves to fan the flames of doubt and distrust, providing support for the unjustified suspicion that there are far more bad apples – or that the whole barrel is rotten.
Policies that deny public access to body-worn camera recordings are fundamentally counter-productive. They defeat the very purpose for deploying the cameras in the first place. As Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, puts it, “With certain limited exceptions … body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request … because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.” Conversely, withholding the recordings feeds the public’s suspicion that there is something to hide.
Congress and state legislatures that provide public funds to police departments to deploy body-worn cameras should attach strings to that purse and mandate that there be a strong presumption of public access to such recordings, with only narrow, carefully defined exceptions. Otherwise, the taxpayer-funded treatment will prove ineffective in healing a serious societal illness: the loss of trust in our badge-wearing public servants.
Attorney Steve Zansberg, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, served on a state-appointed task force on police body cameras.
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