State lawmakers in 34 states pursue rules on police-worn cams

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 5/8/2015

After several high-profile cases in the past year, the issue of police body cameras is a hot topic at statehouses around the country.

In addition, police departments in cities that include Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Antonio are testing, or plan to test, the use of police-worn cameras. The Wall Street Journal reports about 5,000 police departments around the country now use the devices.

State lawmakers in more than 30 states have spent time this year on rules for funding, data storage and retention, open records laws and regulations.

New Jersey became the first state to enact rules on the use of the technology. In the summer of 2014, a new rule was put in place to require that all newly acquired municipal police cars in the state be equipped with dashboard cameras. However, departments can opt to save money and instead outfit officers with body-worn cameras.

The portable devices are credited by law enforcement agencies around the country with improving officer performance as well as the conduct of the person being recorded. The devices typically run anywhere from about $300 to more than $1,000.

A new law in North Dakota addresses concern about what the public gets to see. Gov. Jack Dalrymple recently signed into law a bill to make recordings made by police in a private place off limits to the state’s open records law.

In North Carolina, the House has voted 115-1 to advance a bill that would exempt body camera and dashboard video images from the state’s open records law. Specifically, law enforcement agencies would have the discretion to release recordings if they serve “a public safety purpose.”

Despite the growing use of body-worn cameras, a report by the U.S. Justice Department says that about one-third of police departments nationwide that use the devices do not have any standard procedure or practice when operating the cameras.

With that in mind, states that include California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Texas are focusing on rules, procedures, policies and training for the use of police body cameras. A new law in Arizona sets up a study committee to recommend policies and laws on the use of images and recordings captured by the devices.

“It’s important that any policies set on the state level remain flexible so that local agencies can develop procedures that line up with community needs and agency resources,” California Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said in prepared remarks.

An effort underway in Connecticut would set up a pilot program in three municipalities of various sizes. The programs would be used to recommend statewide protocols for administration and usage throughout the state.

Only South Carolina has legislation to require state and local police officers to wear devices while on duty.

“History has demonstrated that eyewitnesses are not always the most reliable form of evidence,” Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, previously stated. “It is time for South Carolina to invest in commonsense technology.”

Malloy’s bill includes a requirement to set provisions for the operation of the clip-on cameras. Footage captured in private places would be exempt from the state’s open records law.

The Missouri House voted 127-14 to advance one bill that would prohibit any law enforcement agency from being required to outfit officers with body-worn cameras. Footage would be exempt from the state’s open records law unless it is determined that release of the video is in the interest of public safety.

Law enforcement agencies around the country will get some help with the purchase of the body-worn devices. The Department of Justice has announced $20 million in matching grants to help about 50 agencies nationwide pay for cameras and officer training.

States that have spent time this year looking at implementing rules on the use of cameras include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

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