Police cameras bill needs more work

(Anderson) Herald Bulletin

State legislation to determine rules for public access to video footage from police body cameras and police dashboard cameras in Indiana is finally on the right path.

But there’s still work to do before House Bill 1019 would be an effective law.

The version of the bill that had passed the House of Representatives was fundamentally flawed. Basically, it demanded that members of the public to justify their need to see police video footage. Such a premise runs contrary to the nature of law in a democratic society, in which citizens have a right to know about the actions of public officials — including police officers — on the job.

The version of the bill that was approved last week by an Indiana Senate panel flips the burden of proof to police in cases where they argue against the release of footage.

They could argue, to cite a couple of possibilities, that the release of the footage would compromise an ongoing investigation or that it would unfairly influence the jury in a court trial.

The legislation would also allow police to obscure portions of footage that might identify undercover officers or informants or portions that could constitute an invasion of privacy by showing nudity or exposing medical information.

These are all reasonable concerns and should be part of the law.

What the bill, which will be considered on the floor of the state Senate, lacks is a directive that police officers working in the field (with some possible exceptions — such as undercover officers) in Indiana must wear body cameras and that their cars must be outfitted with dashboard cameras. Until the use of such cameras becomes mandatory, the availability of police video footage will be inconsistent from town to town and county to county.

There is, of course, the matter of funding the purchase of body camera equipment for local departments — and the last thing local government units need is another unfunded mandate from the state.

House Bill 1019 stipulates that the public can access police footage when there is a concern of police brutality or the violation of civil rights. But it doesn’t describe the process by which citizens can secure the footage when police claim the footage contains no evidence of either brutality or civil rights violations.

Would a judge step in to make a ruling? The legislation should address this.

The bill, as it stands now, would be a good starting point. But the law needs to go further in assuring that police across the state play by the same rules in both implementation of cameras and in making footage available to the public.