On February 18, 2015 Drone Free St. Louis went to Jefferson City and testified in opposition to Missouri bill SB 331.
We are testifying today against SB 331 and in favor of an open and vigorous Sunshine Law. First, we believe that police vehicle and body cameras are positive tools to increase public transparency in policing and in building community trust. They can help show the public that we are working toward a fair and accountable police force. The community needs to be able to see what happens during encounters with the police and have input when making sure that police reflect community values. Second, we believe that the real privacy concerns related to body cameras are best served through police department policies that clearly specify and limit the use of the cameras in sensitive situations and create greater privacy by limiting the storage and accessibility of the data.
There are great gains to be made by the community input that can come from the use of these cameras. Let us use as an example a recently revealed vehicle tape from an encounter in St. Louis. That encounter resulted in accusations of police excessive force, but the tape of the incident was inconclusive because it had been purposely turned off before the incident ended. Had the public been able to see the complete incident, we would have known more clearly whether police had acted appropriately. Without it, a haze of doubt and mistrust hangs over the police. But with what the public does know—that the tape was inappropriately turned off—the public can work to improve police policy. Is there a clear policy about turning off the tapes? Are there appropriate consequences for officers who violate that policy? Public awareness and input into policy can improve policing in these areas as well as other issues related to use of force and procedural justice.
To be sure, there are important concerns raised by body and vehicle cameras, regarding the privacy of both police and the general public. We believe these concerns can best be addressed through a nuanced approach involving clear policies and minor changes to the Sunshine Law. The blanket closing of virtually all camera data is too broad. Instead, the legislature may want to pass mandatory guidelines for departments adopting cameras. Drone Free St. Louis has created such a model policy based on sets of recommendations put forward by the COPS Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the ACLU. They include the following privacy provisions:
- The public shall be notified, when practical, that they are being recorded;
- Police must obtain consent from crime victims and from residents of dwellings being entered under non-exigent circumstances;
- Recording shall be prohibited when interviewing confidential informers, during strip searches, when there is an expectation of privacy, when police tactics are being discussed, and when agency personnel are conducting non-enforcement activities;
- Data shall be kept for only a short period (weeks rather than months) unless flagged for relevancy in an investigation, for supervisory purposes or for use in a complaint regarding misconduct;
- Sunshine Law should be modified to allow data to be open records if the subject of a video approves, if faces and other private details are redacted through visual blurring techniques, or if unredacted video has been flagged as likely containing police misconduct.