A legislative proposal that would require any police body camera footage have nearly all faces blurred before it is released to the public would defeat the purpose of the cameras, critics say.
The measure, House Bill 2152, would require that all police agencies redact faces or portions of people’s bodies if they are not the subject of an investigation if the footage is taken in a private place or a public place where there is a presumption of privacy, if the person is a victim or witness of a crime, or if they are in a state of undress.
David Bodney, an attorney who represents media outlets, including Arizona Mirror, in public records and First Amendment issues, said that the bill would do much more harm than good to his news clients and even to law enforcement.
“No one said it louder or clearer than police officers themselves that they wanted body cam footage available because, more often than not, it would show them doing their jobs responsibly,” Bodney said, adding that footage also often is used by news agencies to help identify suspects or find missing people.
Bodney said the bill would slow the process of releasing body camera video and reduce the public’s access to that footage.
“This bill would reduce the public’s ability to inspect body cam footage of incidents that, today, we can see,” Bodney said, adding “If law enforcement feels the need to redact certain visual depictions of victims and witnesses, they can do that today.”
There are already some protections in state law for victims and witnesses in regards to body camera footage. Five years ago, the legislature passed a bill that blocked images of juvenile victims or witnesses of crimes from being released unless the public interest outweighs the privacy concerns.
How police agencies in the state handle redactions on police body camera footage can vary, the Mirror previously reported.
For example, the Tempe Police Department has a policy of applying a “medium blur” to all footage released unless the requestor specifically asks for the blur to be removed.
A spokesman said the policy is designed to allow the agency to more quickly release records, as there is one employee who redacts videos in response to records requests and the agency does not have automatic redaction software.
Although Tempe Police said its policy aims to speed up the release of videos that are requested, that wasn’t the Mirror’s experience. An initial request took the agency 61 days to fill. A subsequent request for the same video without the “medium blur” and instead with “object tracking” redactions was filled in another 14 days.
Policies vary by agency but are generally similar, though there are a few interesting outliers.
For example, the Scottsdale Police Department’s policy states that the department’s public information officers may “review, download, and disseminate videos specifically related to public information requests without prior approval.” Other videos will be released in accordance with the department’s normal public records policy.
Scottsdale Police also applies “object tracking” to all its videos by default, a spokesman told the Mirror. Some agencies, such as the Tucson Police Department already apply a “heavy blur” to victims of crimes.
Rep. John Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor didn’t respond to requests for comment. But the Fountain Hills Republican told the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee that his bill was both necessary and inexpensive to implement.
“Police body cameras are here to stay, regardless of how you feel about them,” he said. Kavanagh added that the bill may add “minor additional expenses” to agencies, but suggested agencies download “free apps” to blur faces.
“The cost is, you download a free app and apply it,” Kavanagh said.
But there are questions about whether Kavanagh’s desire to protect people’s privacy goes too far and would make policing more opaque — an issue the body word cameras are intended to alleviate.
“There is a middle ground between police transparency and protecting victims and witnesses,” said Darrell Hill, the policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
Hill said the ACLU of Arizona understands some of what Kavanagh’s bill aims to do, but worries about the vagueness of the language around what constitutes a “public place with an expectation of privacy.”
The ACLU believes that officers should alert people that they are recording before entering a private residence, and it should be up to that person if they want the officer’s camera to be recording. Kavanagh told the House committee that one of his motivations with the bill was to prevent “nosey neighbors” or others from getting body camera footage that showcased someone’s dirty home if they called police about a burglary and then putting the footage online.
Hill said his organization hopes to speak with Kavanagh about the bill, as they feel statewide policy around how body cameras are used is in dire need of attention.
“As a starting point, we need more comprehensive legislation on body cameras,” Hill said. “Body cameras, if done right, are good for the community.”
The bill was approved by the committee with Republican support and will head to the House floor for a vote.