Body Cameras: Balancing Privacy and Accountability Under the PIA

MACo has adopted four initiatives for the 2017 General Assembly Session. This post outlines MACo’s initiative to balance the release of police body camera video footage under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) and provides Q&A to help provide basic information and helpful links to explore issues in more depth.

For a primer on police body camera’s read Nuts and Bolts of Body Cameras on Conduit Street. For additional information about MACo’s priorities, read all of MACo’s top initiatives 

What’s new with police body cameras in Maryland?

In recent years much work has been done to create a legal and policy framework for the use of police body cameras allowing counties across the state to launch programs to equip their officers.

The passage of new state laws during the 2015 session set up a framework for police body cameras by creating an exception to the wiretapping and electronic surveillance law and by requiring the Maryland Police Training Commission (MPTC) to develop and publish policies rules to govern their use. A separate commission was also created to study the implementation of body cameras and determine best practices for their use.

That’s great! So what’s the problem?

One crucial area remains unsettled – how the release of body camera video is to be handled under the PIA. The Commission studying implementation determined that changes to the PIA were outside of its scope, but ultimately recommended that the General Assembly review and address issues surrounding public access to videos, particularly those showing domestic abuse or victims of violent crimes.

What are the lingering public information concerns?

The PIA was largely created to handle paper documents and only recently updated to better handle static electronic records. Body cameras raise a number of privacy and transparency concerns for state and local governments. There are sensitive situations in which a person interacting with an officer may not want to be recorded or have the recording made public. The redaction of faces, signage or other identifying or sensitive footage before a video can be released is costly and labor intensive.

These issues can make responding to overbroad or abusive requests for video footage under the PIA extremely challenging for governments. The PIA does not address the practical, technical, and privacy challenges facing a local government from potential requests of hundreds of hours of accumulated body camera video, all of which must be subjected to attorney review and redaction where appropriate.

This sounds familiar. Didn’t we address these concerns during the 2016 session?

Yes and no. Given the importance of the issue, MACo adopted the handling of video camera footage under the PIA as one of its 2016 legislative initiatives. After months of meeting with stakeholders and working to develop consensus and address outstanding issues MACo introduced legislation sponsored by Delegate Sydnor and Senator Ferguson (HB 947 / SB 930) to address the issues.

The House passed HB 947 with the proposed sponsor amendments but the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee took no action on the bill. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee also heard SB 930 but took no further action on the bill. Ultimately the bill was stalled in the Senate and no changes to law were enacted to address the PIA issues.

Please remind us. What exactly did the MACo bill do?

As a means of balancing privacy with transparency and accountability concerns, MACo’s bill created a series of denials under the PIA for certain police body camera video requests. These denials are triggered by recordings that:

  • Show incidents of domestic violence, sexual crimes, or abuse of minors or vulnerable adults;
  • Do not result in an arrest, temporary detention, death, or injury of the individual or a complaint of officer misconduct made against any law enforcement officer involved in the incident.

Additionally, any individual who was a subject of a recording or involved in the incident that prompted the recording would be allowed to inspect the recording subject to existing exceptions under the PIA. This includes the parents, legal guardians, or agents of a minor or incapacitated individual that were filmed.

Are there any other protections or exceptions?

MACo’s bill did not alter the discovery or evidentiary rights of a party in civil or criminal litigation. It also prohibited an individual under investigation for, charged with, pleaded nolo contendere, or guilty, or been found guilty of a violation listed in the bill, from receiving a copy of the recording. The bill did allow such an individual to inspect the recording if they were the subject of or involved in the incident that gave rise to the recording.

What can we expect in 2017?

MACo has once again adopted balancing the release of police body camera video as one of its legislative initiatives for 2017 and is preparing to reintroduce the 2016 bill in the same form it passed out of the House. That bill addressed the concerns of and generated consensus support from a broad selection of stakeholder including the Maryland Municipal League, State police, the law enforcement community, the media, victim’s rights groups, and open government groups. MACo will continue to work with these stakeholders in preparation for the 2017 session.

 

The MACo Police Body Camera Initiative will be discusses at the MACo Winter Conference closing general session “Session 2017:Path to Success“.

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference:

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