Shouts of “no justice, no peace,” filled the back of the room when North Charleston’s mayor promised all of the city’s cops would be equipped with cameras.
Cell phone video from a witness showed Officer Michael Slager firing a volley of shots at Walter Scott’s back, contradicting Slager’s account of what happened and extending national outrage over the killing of another unarmed black man.
As in North Charleston, body cameras for officers have repeatedly been cited as a way police agencies can appease an increasingly distrustful public — an added layer of oversight, a foolproof witness.
When federal judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in 2013 the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies racially discriminated, she suggested cops in the most affected precincts be equipped with body cameras.
Days after a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the department began deploying the cameras in the field.
But as police body cameras become more common on the street, some lawmakers are stepping in to limit access to what they capture, and according to advocates like Chad Marlow, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, that’s a problem.
“If [police] only release what they want the public to see, then it’s not a transparency tool, it’s a propaganda tool,” Marlow told BuzzFeed News.
In cases where an act of force or the events leading up to an arrest are recorded, or a complaint has been filed, “these types of videos are of significant public interest,” Marlow added.
“Those videos need to be made available,” he said.
However, in nearly half the country, BuzzFeed News found that state legislators are considering laws that would keep the videos out of public sight.
As of mid-April, 31 states were found to be weighing some sort of body camera law, at least 20 of which are considering limiting access to video footage. The restrictions are even being considered in states like Missouri and South Carolina, where the police-involved shooting deaths of unarmed black men sparked community outrage and demand for the cameras.
Lawmakers in Utah are considering a bill that would require body cameras for all officers, but also make the footage a private record. In Iowa, a proposed bill states that police body camera video recordings “shall be kept confidential.”
In Washington, elected officials are considering a bill that would restrict access to the video, and forbids those who do get access from sharing, showing, or describing the footage to anyone.
Several other states are considering making body camera footage exempt from public record laws, even when the footage is not being used in a criminal investigation.
A bill in Kansas, for example, states that body camera footage “shall be confidential and exempt from the public records act.”