As police departments across the nation and in Iowa begin equipping their officers with body cameras, a central question has emerged: Who gets to see the footage?
It’s a question that has pitted privacy concerns against a desire for transparency, while government officials also grapple with how body camera footage fits into public records laws.
Those issues and others will be tackled by a panel of experts during a Freedom of Information roundtable being organized next month by The Des Moines Register and Iowa Newspaper Association. Called “Police Body Camera Video: Who Gets to See?” the panel will take place from 1-3 p.m., Oct. 8, in the Register’s community room.
It’s a timely subject, both nationally and in Iowa.
Recently, the Iowa Public Information Board agreed to accept a complaint from the Burlington Hawk Eye, which has been fighting for months to get access to body camera footage of a Burlington police officer accidentally shooting and killing a woman. We’ve editorialized on this issue and believe strongly that the public has a right to see what happened on Jan. 6 when Autumn Davis was shot by Officer Jesse Hill, who was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. Authorities released a 10-second clip of the incident, but have thus far refused to provide the full video.
Kevin Goldberg, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, said in a panel discussion at the Newseum on Wednesday that his organization has looked at policies proposed around the country on police-worn body cameras. Many attempt to answer the same questions, such as: How long do you keep the video? How do you redact videos? Should the policy have exemptions for sexual assault and domestic violence victims? Should the rules be different for video taken on public property vs. inside your house?
Proposed legislation around the nation varies. In Washington, D.C., for instance, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser caught heat after announcing earlier this year that the district’s police force would be held accountable through the widespread use of body cameras — but then proposed exempting those videos from the Freedom of Information Act, effectively barring access to the public.
In Iowa, lawmakers failed to act last session on two pieces of body camera legislation. One would have made camera recordings confidential only if they are part of an ongoing criminal investigation; the other would have allowed disclosure only if each person who is recorded gives written consent.
The issue is expected to surface again during the Legislature’s next session.
We hope next month’s public forum can help spur discussion and find solutions to the question of who gets to see the footage. We’ll ask: What does a model policy look like that gives the public access to critical information while protecting an individual’s right to privacy?
The events of the last 12 months involving law enforcement officers around the nation make clear that oversight is needed. Keeping the videos secret undercuts a key reason for having them in the first place: improving trust between citizens and law enforcement.
Please join us for this important discussion.
— Amalie Nash is the executive editor and vice president for news and engagement at The Des Moines Register. Reach her at email@example.com or (515) 284-8551. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieNash