In Harrisburg, the Legislature is working on a bill that would open the door to allow police to use body and dashboard cameras by removing some of the legal hurdles that could limit their use.
At the same time — in fact, in the same bill — the Legislature is closing the door on public access to those tapes, exempting the videos caught on those cameras from the state’s Right to Know Law.
A member of the public — or the media, to use another example — would have to go to court to argue for the release of the video. And the police could argue against it on the grounds it could possibly be used in a criminal case.
But, let’s have a “Say, What?” Moment here. Police cameras are supposed to make the process of policing more transparent. No longer do we only have to the word of a witness, suspect or police officer to describe what happened. The videos often tell the story.
And now the Legislature wants to make it more difficult for the public to get access to those tapes? That’s the equivalent of taking transparency and putting black tape over the word so it can’t be seen. For that matter, we might as well put a black tape over the word accountability as well.
In effect, the legislation seeks to negate the role technology is playing in law enforcement, where surveillance taping is common practice. Who among us hasn’t seen a video of a robbery, the beating of an innocent person, a suspect running away? Video cameras have become an essential of law enforcement and a great asset.
In the same way, body cameras and dashboard videos can capture the police in action. In the vast majority of cases, they show that the right procedures were followed. They affirm the police version of an event. But, what if an officer goes rogue? Will a department’s desire to protect one of its own outweigh the public’s right to know?
The legislation, Senate Bill 560, passed the Senate on May 9 by a vote of 47-1. It now goes to the state House. We urge that chamber to remove the barriers set up by the bill and improve public access.
The Senate has another bill on its agenda that would also blot out transparency when it comes to allegations of police misconduct.
It would forbid the public release of the name of an officer under investigation for using a gun or other physical force that results in the death or serious injury of an individual.
The argument of this FOP-inspired bill is that release of public information could lead to harassment or harm to the police officer. That sets a new standard for police that citizens do not enjoy.
By keeping the name secret, it opens large segments of the force to public suspicion that he or she is the officer under investigation. In our view, the police should operate under the same rules and standards that apply to citizens. HB27 has already passed the state House. We would urge the Senate to defeat the bill or consign it forever to committee.
Both these bills do damage to the ideals of transparency and accountability. Public confidence in the police can’t be built using secrecy.