Police body cams: Bill would exempt footage from FOIA – Detroit Free Press
LANSING – The issue of requiring police officers to wear body cameras, which is getting increased attention in light of several high profile deaths of African-American males at the hands of police officers across the nation, landed before the Legislature Monday.
But the policy discussion wasn’t about state funds available for body cameras or mandating the use of the new technology. The first bill up for discussion before the House Judiciary Committee is one that would exempt some body-cam footage from release under the state’s Freedom of Information laws.
The bill has created some unlikely allies. State Rep. Jim Runestad, the sponsor of the bill and a conservative Republican from White Lake, and Shelli Weisberg, legislative liaison for the ACLU of Michigan, both testified in support of the legislation.
“Studies have shown that body-worn cameras improve public service as well as the conduct between officers and citizens,” Runestad said, noting that citizens should continue to have a presumption of privacy in their own homes. “But surveillance technology should not be deployed without careful consideration.”
While the ACLU in general has a dim view of the use of surveillance cameras, “Body cameras have the potential to serve as a check on people in power and protect police against false accusations,” Weisberg said.
“But the challenge for body worn cameras is the potential to invade privacy,” she added. “They must be deployed so they protect the public without becoming a tool for routine surveillance of citizens.”
The legislation would exempt some of the body-cam footage from Freedom of Information laws and require police departments to retain the footage for 30 days, unless it’s part of a criminal investigation. In those cases, the video would have to be saved for at least three years.
The only people who could get the footage, which was taken in a private place or residence, would be: the person who is the subject of the video, their parent or legal guardian; or someone who had their property seized.
There is mixed support and opposition to the bill from different police organizations. But both the Michigan Association of Broadcasters and the Michigan Press Association oppose the bill – HB 4234 – noting that current Freedom of Information laws already cover the release of public and non-public records.
“Digital media is the next great front that all of us have to figure out,” said Karole White, president and CEO of the Broadcasters association. “We have no problem with body cameras, but most of what’s in this bill is already in FOIA.”
Lisa McGraw, spokeswoman for the press association, said she has concerns about the language in the bill regarding how long departments need to hang on to the footage.
“How does this affect civil cases against police departments,” she said. “This is a huge, big issue that they need to take some time to really look at.”
Both the Detroit Police Department and Michigan State Police are testing body cameras on a small number of officers.
DPD has been testing body cameras for officers for the last year. The first no-cost pilot that was used on 20 police officers and paid for by TASER International. The department is in the midst of a second, 90-day testing period.
MSP is also in the middle of testing about two dozen body cameras on some Capitol security officers and troopers in southeast Michigan. They won’t make a determination on whether to deploy the cameras department-wide until the testing period is over, said Tiffany Brown, MSP spokeswoman.
“In general, the MSP is supportive of body cameras being worn as they increase transparency and help protect both law enforcement officers and citizens,” she said. ” However, as with any technology, there are areas that we need to explore further such as the cost to purchase large quantities of body cameras, maintenance fees, storage expenses, and policies.”
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department is meeting with WatchGuard Technologies, the Seattle company that provides the department with in-car video cameras, to talk about testing a small number of body cameras for deputies. Cost could be a prohibitive factor, said Undersheriff Mike McCabe, though, with a price tag of up to $1.6 million to equip the department.
State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township and chairman of the Judiciary committee, said it’s an important topic for debate, especially with the emerging technology and in light of the recent shooting death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, where the officer involved has been charged with murder after a bystander’s video became public.
He doesn’t have a time line for when a vote on the bill might take place.
There also is legislation that was introduced by Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, that would mandate that police officers wear body cameras. A hearing on that bill has not been scheduled.
Contact Kathleen Gray: 517-372-8661, email@example.com or on Twitter @michpoligal.