Louisiana senators on Tuesday stalled, at least temporarily, a proposal to exempt all police body camera footage unrelated to criminal investigations from state public records law.
Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said he plans to continue discussions on Senate Bill 398 and bring a reworked proposal to the Judiciary B Committee next week. He decided Tuesday to remove the bill from the panel’s consideration.
Johns sat flanked by the Lake Charles and Alexandria police chiefs as he presented the bill that would block public access to the law enforcement body camera video or audio recordings unless otherwise ordered by a judge.
The police officials raised concerns about privacy rights, vulnerable victims, witnesses and people who are filmed but aren’t subject to investigation. A mention of video storage costs received little panel discussion.
“What we’re trying to do is find that happy median, that happy median there, that we protect the privacy of that victim that deserves that privacy,” Johns said.
But senators worried that the bill’s language was too broad, a concern echoed by the Louisiana Press Association. Some suggested the bill may have unintended consequences and could block law enforcement transparency instead of merely protecting individual privacy rights.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, pointed to the usefulness of citizen video footage in prompting a thorough police investigation. In the recent investigation of the fatal shooting of beloved former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith, Peterson said, available citizen video helped the investigation.
“I respect what (police) do, but in 2016 there’s a reason we ask for body cameras, and those body cameras produce information that is helpful to the public and reveal information for all people involved to make good decisions,” she said.
For Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport, law enforcement body cameras also protect against officer misconduct.
“I know how the blue deal with the blue. They protect each other,” Tarver said. “I know 99.9 percent of the police are super good, but it only takes one bad apple to destroy the barrel.”
Testimony in support of exempting some camera footage suggested the bill nullifies the senators’ concerns. Courts would already block any video related to a crime, such as a killing or abuse of force case, under current law.
Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, tried to put the issue into everyday context and questioned the media’s access to video taken on private property “that could be used, in some cases, for just slanderous embarrassment.”
However, Scott Sternberg, with the press association, countered the privacy arguments. He said current public records law protects against unreasonable requests that could violate privacies. The bill would only cause citizens to immediately sue for video access, he noted.
Sternberg called the proposal “a bit premature,” adding that it would “legislate piecemeal.” The Louisiana Law Enforcement Body Camera Implementation Task Force’s pending report on body cameras could better help to create a workable framework for the entire system, he said.