In a bid to maintain police transparency and accountability after the fatal shooting of Mike Brown, some Missouri legislators proposed legislation that would require police departments to purchase body cameras.
Now, another Missouri lawmaker is pushing back on those efforts by proposing legislation that would ban the public from actually seeing the footage.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Doug Libla (R), would make all footage recorded by police officers, including dashboard and body cameras, exempt from the state’s open records law, and would prevent the state from requiring that police departments purchase and use body cameras. As the law currently stands, the public is able to request police videos through Missouri open record, or Sunshine, law.
Missouri’s Attorney General Chris Koster (D) also recently supported restricting public access to footage recorded on body cameras.
Supporters of Libla’s bill, including Sheldon Lineback, the executive director for Missouri Police Chiefs Association, cited privacy concerns. “Individuals may make mistakes and those mistakes never come off the Internet,” she argued.
Others, however, are less convinced.
The ACLU’s Sarah Rossi called it an “end run around Missouri’s Sunshine law,” which she claimed already enables law enforcement to withhold evidence from active police investigations.
“By not making [the videos] public record, it seems useless to have [body cameras] when the purpose is to create a system to go back and see what’s going on,” a St. Louis resident member of the Don’t Shoot Coalition told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Debate about the Missouri bill underscores a national conversation about the deployment of body cameras and their potential to curb police brutality. Indeed, some research has shown that cops are often on their best behavior when they’re being watched — in Rialto, California, for example, complaints against police dropped 88 percent after officers were required to wear cameras.
However, video footage of police misconduct doesn’t always guarantee that justice will be served. In December, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed using an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner. Last year, a jury acquitted two former police officers for beating a homeless schizophrenic man to death, despite harrowing video showing the man pleading for help and asking for his father. And in 2013, a Chicago police officer dodged charges for fatally shooting an unarmed man, in spite of footage that showed the officer firing 16 times while standing over the victim’s body.
Additionally, problems can arise when cops intentionally tamper with recording equipment or use the cameras selectively. As ThinkProgress previously reported, officers in Los Angeles disabled antennas on multiple vehicles before patrolling low-income neighborhoods.
Still, the technological deficiencies won’t be solved by walling off public access to body camera recordings, opponents of the Missouri bill contest.
“Refusing to release records can only lead to mistrust in law enforcement and a belief that something’s being hidden,” Doug Crews, the executive director of the Missouri Press Association, told Missourinet.com.