The public has a right to know what’s recorded on police body cameras

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Under a proposed bill in the state Assembly, most footage from police body cameras would be kept from the public. This Milwaukee Police Department footage is from the body camera worn by Dominique Heaggan-Brown and used in his trial. Milwaukee Police Department

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Images of 36-year old James Barnett of Laurel that show a bruised and battered face after he says he was attacked by two police officers are startling and heartbreaking. However, they are not unique. All across the country, newspapers and television sets have blasted these graphic pictures across the front pages and into our living rooms.

Most times, we never know the end result. Was the officer reprimanded? What did the investigation prove? Who will be held accountable? What did the body camera footage show?

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In the case of Barnett, however, we know the Laurel Police Department fired two police officers accused of brutalizing him. We know that the officers wore body cameras. And we know that the Laurel Police Department has the footage but refuses to release it.

In Mississippi, body cameras are often deployed in a manner that undermines transparency, accountability, and trust. Policies of law enforcement agencies in the Pine Belt fail to provide basic privacy safeguards and bare-minimum accountability provisions.

While LPD has a policy for body camera usage, it does not provide clarity on whether officers can view footage prior to submitting their report, how that footage becomes accessible by the public, or whether or not someone’s privacy rights are taken into account.

While LPD’s policy requires that body cameras are activated for all encounters, it does not provide measures for ensuring that the privacy rights of children, domestic violence victims, and people in their homes are protected. Laurel PD’s policy does provide an accountability measure, but only says that failure to follow the policy ‘could’ result in disciplinary action against an officer. Nor does it include any provision for how video can be accessed or if it will be released.

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For too long, law enforcement agencies hide behind the assertion of “ongoing investigation” as an exception for releasing body camera footage. Withholding video only increases the level of discord between the community and the police. Law enforcement should not be allowed to abuse their authority in this way.

Having exclusive control over if and when footage is released or refusing to release video altogether of police brutality and police involved shootings and killings, which are disproportionally of black men, serve as an attempt to avoid transparency and accountability. The mere deployment of body cameras makes the statement that police departments believe the actions of officers are a matter of public record. Therefore, these matters are also of public concern. Policies should err on the side of public disclosure, and law enforcement agencies should release footage if consent of those involved is granted.

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Dozens of law enforcement agencies are using or considering body cameras. Body cameras, while not a silver bullet to ending police misconduct, can be part of the solution, but only when adopted alongside policies that further the goals of improved policing and strike the right balance of transparency, accountability, and privacy protections.

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