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Police Body Cameras and Dashboard Videos, Illinois Officials Debate New Law Governing Release To the Public


With the public still reeling after the yearlong delay in release of a video showing a black teenager fatally shot by a white police officer, Illinois lawmakers are scrambling to answer the same questions lawmakers from numerous other states across the country have been wrestling with for some time: How much access does the public need and do body cameras and dashboard videos qualify for public release under open records laws?

These questions do not always have clear answers. Government officials must weigh the public’s increasing interest in monitoring police activities with the protection of victim privacy and the integrity of pending investigations. Currently, the power often rests with law-enforcement agencies themselves, who can determine when, and if, videos should be available for release. Illinois legislators supporting changes now want a judge to be the first stop in such determination, where, if no protective order is issued, the video would be released under normal open records guidelines. Those supporting the proposal hope to restore public confidence in the process and transparency in the way shootings are handled by the police. The bill already has bipartisan support from sixteen lawmakers who have signed on as co-sponsors.

If passed, the Bill will apply to dashcams and officer-worn body cameras, which are being adopted across the country as a way to monitor fatal police interactions with citizens, especially interactions with African-American individuals, which have come under greater scrutiny in the past 18 months.

So far twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws addressing body cameras, with most acting as a “guidebook” on how to use the cameras, and only ten considering the videos to fall under the umbrella of the state’s “open records laws.”

“We look at it as a piece of evidence” said Laimutis Nargelanas, former lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, and the current police chief for the Springfield Park District. Nargelanas finds the bill problematic, concerned that if the videos are made “open record” that they could compromise an on-going investigation. “We have a concern that [Representative Turner, proponent of the bill)]wants us to, automatically, if there’s a police shooting, release the video and if we don’t want to release it go to the judge.”

The American Civil Liberties Union shares in the chief’s concerns, noting that the legislation could inadvertently expose people’s privacy because police don’t have time to go to court every time there is a request to release a video.

“All of these videos are going to be taken and almost all of them are going to be released” said Chad Marlow, counsel for the ACLU. “It’s a commendable effort focusing on a real problem, but that solution creates a brand new problem.”

Clearly, the issues raised by this simple looking proposal are complex. We will follow the debate closely.

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