NASHVILLE — A proposal that would seal police body camera footage from the public is gaining traction in the legislature as open records and civil rights advocates cry foul.
Supporters of the legislation say it protects bystanders, crime victims and officers until lawmakers and open government supporters come up with a law that all sides can agree upon. Those opposed worry that the measure will keep the public in the dark, possibly for years, in cases where there are serious questions about police brutality.
The proposal comes in the form of an amendment sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin.
Casada said he is changing his amendment before it comes up in a House committee Tuesday but said it would be similar to what passed last week. He said he wants all parties to come together over the summer to come up with legislation. However, it’s not clear if police agencies and open records advocates can agree on what should be released.
The amendment puts a one-year moratorium in general on any video or audio recordings used by police. It’s not clear how many police agencies in Tennessee use body cameras. Memphis, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Gallatin Police Department are among the agencies that use them.
In cases where officer misconduct is alleged, the camera footage would not be released until the completion of an internal or criminal investigation or the completion of a court case. Public records advocates say this means the public might potentially wait years to see the footage as an appeals process drags on.
“We have a duty not only to the people that we serve and protect, but agencies also have a duty to the law enforcement officer that works there also,” said Maggi McLean Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. Police agencies, Duncan said, shouldn’t be releasing camera footage on unsubstantiated complaints against an officer.
But those who think the public should see the footage say that it often times exonerates officers and assures citizens. “In instances where excessive force or misconduct is alleged, allowing public access to footage quickly is particularly important to restore community trust and protect public safety,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU of Tennessee. “Waiting to release footage until after investigations are completed could take months or even years. In city after city we have seen instances where delaying access to such footage does more harm than good.”