DPS troopers could get body cams, along with restrictions to block release of their footage

By: - May 25, 2021 3:46 pm

Photo by Bayne Froney | Cronkite News

Republican lawmakers are poised to give the Arizona Department of Public Safety money to equip all state troopers with body-worn cameras — but along with the money comes severe restrictions on the public’s ability to ever see what those cameras capture.

The funding and the protocols governing how DPS camera footage would be released are tucked into one of the budget bills that was introduced this week. 

The language restricting access to the video footage is similar to a bill proposed by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, earlier in the session that failed. That bill would have mandated redactions on any body worn camera footage released by all police departments. The provisions in the budget bill apply only to DPS, but are much more restrictive — and serve to carve out an exemption from existing public records law.

“It’s just going to be further reason not to release something,” First Amendment attorney Dan Barr said to Arizona Mirror, adding that the provisions misunderstand Arizona’s public record law. “The public records law says that a public record is a public record.”

The rules that were approved by Republicans Tuesday in House and Senate budget committees say that DPS cannot release video unless all people in the video consent to its release or if DPS “determines that there is an important public purpose” to releasing it. Those purposes include the footage capturing a crime being committed, a police officer using physical force or an allegation of misconduct against an officer.

But DPS would have total discretion to withhold any body-cam video from public release, even if all of the criteria are met.

And any video that is released must be “redacted” to obscure the identity of people in the video, including crime victims. 

Further, anyone requesting release of a video has to know the exact date, time and location of the recording, as well as the people involved. Requests that don’t include all of those things must be denied, the proposed law says.

“This is to require a person from having a pretty good idea of what they want instead of making blanket requests,” Kavanagh said in committee explaining his rationale. He added that it is meant to keep people from going on “fishing expeditions” with records requests.

The proposed restrictions fly in the face of Arizona’s public records law and the transparency it is designed to provide, Barr said.

“It completely flips what the public records law is,” he said. “Who’s going to run around and get consent from all these people?”

Arizona public records law favors disclosure and the burden is on the government to show why a public record should be redacted or not released, Barr said. 

Both the Arizona Newspapers Association, of which the Arizona Mirror is a member, and the Arizona Broadcasters Association said Tuesday they were opposed to the DPS body-worn camera restrictions.

During the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Kavanagh said that the bill was meant to protect people’s privacy, giving an example of “someone” posting body camera footage of your home after you have called the police for help. 

“No one has a right to see what your house looks like at 3 a.m.,” Kavanagh said. 

Barr isn’t convinced. 

“I’d be interested if there are any real world instances of what John Kavanagh is saying,” Barr said, adding that he was doubtful that such cases existed. 

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. 

Kavanagh that DPS could download an app used on “TikTok” to blur faces in body cam footage for “free.” 

However, the provisions added also allow for DPS to create additional charges to requestors for searching for and redacting body worn camera footage. 

The added provisions allows for DPS to use the cost of reviewing and copying the footage, the compensation of a public records employee and “any other relevant information” when assessing the fee. Existing public records law does not allow the government to force the public to pay the wages of the government employees involved in producing records.

“There are no other governmental functions where you have to pay them their prorated salary for doing their governmental duties,” Barr said, adding that current public records law don’t allow you to charge for employee time. “Governmental bodies have been trying this for the past 30 years.”

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.