Lawmakers Give Mixed Signals on Police Body Cams

cop barThe recent spate of officer-involved shootings has brought renewed calls for body cameras to be worn by law enforcement. That debate reached the Utah Legislature last Wednesday when lawmakers discussed the matter during the first interim session of 2015.

There were many questions surrounding the use of body cameras, such as when they should be turned on and off and how long the film should be kept. Privacy rights also factor into the discussion.

Earlier this year, Representative Dan McCay (Republican – Riverton) sponsored HB 386 – Body Cameras for Law Enforcement Officers, which would have set usage standards. The bill ultimately died, having been unceremoniously sent back to Rules late in the session.

Two months later, McCay is now back on the case. “99.9% of our law enforcement professionals handle themselves in a very excellent way, but there are scenarios where there is an incentive to take video that has been recorded and remove it, delete it, make it not available. What happens in that scenario?” he said.

Representative Paul Ray (Republican – Clearfield) believes the matter should be left to local law enforcement: “Every agency has a different mechanism, different people, different way, and different personnel. Wouldn’t it be a simple bill, I think, that would cover it [that] would just say ‘if you’re going to have body cameras, you need to have policies, you need to have procedures, you need to have regulations and training,’ and allow those departments to develop their own?”

If the legislature passes a law, Ray feels they are in danger of having to revisit the issue each time something happens. “Liability and court cases are going to drive those policies and make sure they cover what they need versus us putting it in and then coming back every session because one of our constituents doesn’t like what happened or we get a big news thing over something and we have to go back and change it. Wouldn’t it be easier to say if you’re going to have cameras you’ve got to have these and be done with it?”

Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) pointed to a study of the Rialto, California police department’s use of body cameras. Since the department started using the devices in 2012, officer use of force incidents fell by 60 percent. Police shifts without cameras had twice as many incidents as those with cameras. Citizen complaints also dropped 88 percent from the previous year. “Those are startling, startling statistics,” he said.

Senator Daniel Thatcher (Republican – West Valley City) is opposed to making the videos available for public consumption. “I think that we treat evidence like evidence. At the end of the day, we don’t publish crime scene photos, nor should we. When we are using body cams, we’re not creating government records. These are not records of how the government is conducting business. This is evidence. It should be used by law enforcement in the pursuit of their responsibilities. Why on earth did a man who was suffering a mental health issue have his last moments on earth played out on the 6:00 news?”

Lawmakers took no formal action during this first interim session after the end of the 2015 legislative session but plan on continuing the discussion between now and 2016.

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