State Laws Can Get in the Way of Police Accountability

By: - February 25, 2016 12:00 am

Existing state laws could be getting in the way of police accountability and transparency, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Urban Institute.

The group has unveiled an interactive tracker that details existing and proposed state laws on police-worn body cameras, when they can be used and how the public can access footage.

Most states have certain exemptions or restrictions that would keep the public from gaining access to the footage, the tracker shows. But that is changing as more police departments equip officers with recording devices. And that’s forcing states to grapple with the balance between police investigations, privacy protections and the public’s right to information.

States also are dealing with how to deploy the cameras. At least nine states have passed legislation on when and where police can use the cameras, the tracker shows. Similar bills are pending in another 16 states.

Some states, such as South Carolina, have completely exempted body camera footage from public disclosure. Such restrictions worry advocates who say the policies risk complicating existing public records laws and can potentially hide police misconduct.

But Gerald Malloy, the state senator who sponsored South Carolina’s law, said it is important to protect the privacy of people who are recorded by the cameras.

“What you want is to have some responsibility,” Malloy said. “[So] you don’t just have everyone requesting it, placing it on the Internet, those kinds of things.”

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Sarah Breitenbach

Sarah Breitenbach, who writes about the business of government for Stateline, has spent much of her professional life writing about Maryland politics and policy. She began her career covering education and state government for the Frederick News-Post and has worked for the Gazette of Politics and Business and The Associated Press.