Should body-cam videos be public?

This guest column from board member Jean Maneke also appeared in the Missouri Press Association newsletter.

The Missouri Senate is expected shortly to hear a bill that could have some significant impact on the Missouri Sunshine Law.

The bill is Combined Senate Bill 331/21, which was originally filed by Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff. The initial bill would have closed body-cam video permanently, but the version of the bill that came out of the Senate committee that originally heard it provided that body-cam video, like dash-cam video, is considered an “investigative report,” making it a closed record until the prosecution is concluded. However, it appears that Libla is expected to attempt to close body-cam video through an amendment while the bill is on the floor.

This effort in Missouri is an obvious outcome of the controversy that began in Ferguson last August. Law enforcement wearing body cams were just a dream for most agencies, until the controversy over the Michael Brown shooting. Suddenly, law-enforcement agencies across the country began looking at the issue of equipping officers with video. And with it came the issue of to what extent this video should be accessible to the public.

Many agencies have had dash-cam video in cars for some time, and many states make such video available via sunshine law requests. That is the case in Missouri.

But a number of questions arise from these situations that need wrestling with: To what extent does the public have a right to know what actually happened in confrontations between law enforcement and the public? Does the public have some right to privacy when these incidents happen on a public street? What about when the officer is responding to a call in a person’s home?

When should the video be made public? Immediately? Only after the prosecution is completed? And if there are questions about police wrongdoing, should the video be released at an earlier time?

This is a cutting-edge issue in terms of the sunshine law, not only in Missouri but in many other states. As it happens, our state is at the forefront of this issue because of Ferguson, and what happens in Missouri may be seen as a standard that other states will look to. So what happens on this issue in the legislature in coming weeks could be critical.

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