This column originally appeared in the January 28, 2016 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper.
Let me preface this by saying I am not an expert on law or politics. I would, however, consider myself a concerned citizen.
Last week, several local and statewide organizations voiced their frustrations surrounding House Bill 1019, a piece of proposed legislation that would put restrictions on the release of police body cam video. The bill, authored by former sheriff Kevin Mahan, a Republican from Hartford City, has drawn quite a bit of criticism. Dave Crooks, who serves as the chairman of the Indiana Broadcasters Association, called HB 1019 a ridiculous proposal that could take secrecy to new heights. The Hoosier State Press Association also weighed in, noting the bill’s language would give law enforcement officials carte blanche to deny all public requests for access to video.
In between convos about Stacey Dash and other of-the-moment “news,” my timeline was rife with HB 1019 outrage. As many of you may (or may not) agree, much of what results in outrage via Facebook status or tweet oftentimes stems from strategically crafted clickbait meant to incense rather than inform. There was plenty of that floating around and plenty of misinformation as well. It was in the spirit of research I sought to gain some understanding by reading through the bill myself and speaking with people a lot more knowledgeable than I on the subject.
If you would have cared to ask me what I thought at first glance, I’d share that while I understand the need for greater transparency from our police departments, I don’t agree that full transparency, a model in which any and everybody would have unregulated access to every piece of footage collected while an officer is on duty, is a good idea. One reason, which you’ve most likely heard already, is the need to protect the privacy of citizens and the details of court proceedings. Seattle’s police department has attempted to find a way to address the issue of citizen privacy with their YouTube channel SPD BodyWornVideo. Most of the clips are redacted (audio and faces are blurred out) using software developed by a local programmer, and since the channel’s inception nearly 2,600 videos have been posted. As it currently stands, IMPD’s $250,000 budget wouldn’t go very far in purchasing the cameras (of which we currently have zero), software and other things needed to make an undertaking of this caliber possible, but that’s another conversation for another day.
While the bill is in no way perfect, it has elements upon which we can create a framework that serves the dual purpose of holding police accountable and improving public awareness and trust, especially considering there is no actual framework in place for processing requests of this nature.
However, this is not a time when the old adage “something is better than nothing” works.
On Monday, Democratic Rep. Ed Delaney, who helped co-author the bill, sought to make some very important amendments in an attempt to make the bill more transparent. One change would be to place the responsibility on police to explain why a particular video would not be released to the public, as opposed to placing the responsibility on the public to obtain a court order to access footage. “They need to prove the public interest is not served by giving it out; prove that it creates a significant risk of substantial harm to someone,” he said. After Monday’s vote, the amendment was defeated, and on Tuesday HB 1019 advanced out of the House to the Senate.
Prior to the bill passing out of the House, Mahan admitted it had issues, but he wanted it to pass as-is. He also expressed concern that public opinion of the bill is exaggerated, due in no small part to the numerous headlines mentioning it. As I mentioned earlier, that is quite possible, but in this case I believe his response is lame at best, and the outrage here is both righteous and necessary. Furthermore, his response doesn’t do much in calming public fears that something more sinister is at play here. I want to be careful not to draw any hasty comparisons, but Mahan’s critique of media coverage sounds eerily similar to another Republican’s response to news reports of another piece of controversial legislation. This isn’t just about media and the public wanting to catch bad cops who kill unarmed people or use their position for evil purposes. I feel IMPD has tried to do a good job of getting out in front of those types of issues and, in many places across the country where body cameras are used, the number of public complaints against police has decreased. This is about creating a situation in which we “build public confidence,” to quote representative Delaney.
I would urge our local lawmakers to legitimately consider the concerns of the public in the proceedings that are to come. I would also urge citizens to share your thoughts with your elected officials. Take the dialogue beyond comment sections. Show up in person to the Statehouse, write letters, send emails and blow up some phones.
Do we need a law that spells out how we begin to work with body-worn cameras and the dissemination of footage? Absolutely. But this is not it.