Body camera law balances right to know vs. right to privacy

Body Cameras Moonlighting
Body cameras are helpful in seeing police officers to their jobs, but also raise concerns about privacy.

Pennsylvania has taken a significant step forward to improve police accountability and civilian safety. The Senate passed a bipartisan measure allowing police to keep their body cameras recording at all times when they are in the line of duty. Gov. Wolf is expected to sign it into law.

Currently under federal law, police officers must turn their body cameras off when entering a private residence in order to protect the privacy of individuals who invite police into their homes. The problem is, that at that point, interactions between civilians and officers are unmonitored.

Body cameras increase accountability and safety, both for members of the community interacting with police officers and for the officers themselves. However, the cameras are not effective if they’re not turned on. Police cameras should always be rolling  – in public or in a private residence – for the protection of everyone involved. Senate Bill 560 makes this possible.

Simultaneously, an individual has a right to privacy while that camera is recording.

Under current law, body camera recordings are all part of the public record, and therefore completely accessible by the public under the state’s Right-to-Know legislation.

So, if you invite a police officer into your home and his body camera is rolling, a video of your living room suddenly becomes accessible to anyone in the world. If a prison escapee leads an officer on a chase through your basement, any images they capture will be a matter of public record. This is an unacceptable violation of the privacy of citizens everywhere.

Body camera footage should be used to help an investigation, not become an unsolicited public display.

Senate Bill 560 exempts body camera footage taken in private residences from Right-to-Know requests. This means the video of people’s homes would not be accessible to the public at large, including individuals across the globe.

That does not mean the footage isn’t accessible in limited circumstances. Body camera footage will still be easily accessible to those who were recorded, or to anybody with a reasonable relation to the incident without infringing on an individual’s privacy.

For example, if a mother wanted to request body camera footage featuring her child while she wasn’t home, she would be free to do so. Plus, if a police officer wants to review his own recordings to ensure he acted properly in a scenario, he would be free to do so, as well.

Critics of the legislation argue that the measure does not provide adequate public access to recordings of police interactions. I understand this concern, and I support efforts to ensure that police officers are acting appropriately in confrontational situations. However, I want to emphasize that it is equally important to protect an individual’s safety and their privacy. The legislation provides that balance.

In our effort to shine a light on truth and justice, we must be sensitive to citizens’ privacy. We live in an era of instant gratification and rapid response, thanks to social media.  While it’s awakened society to important issues, it should not come at the expense of allowing anyone to put individuals on public display without their consent.

Let’s be clear, this is a victory for progressives who want to see more police accountability. No legislation is perfect, but this is a big stride in the right direction.  At a time when politics is so divisive, this was an issue that united Democrats and Republicans representing every corner of the state.

Senate Bill 560 accomplishes greater accountability and respects an individual’s privacy, but this is only one chapter in the story, not the end of the book. I am committed to continuing this discussion so that we can all feel protected and safe under the law.


State Sen. Sharif Street represents portions of Philadelphia County.