With an increased national focus on officer-involved shootings and incidents, Louisiana lawmakers are now looking at what could — and should — be done on the state level to regulate the use of police-worn body cameras.
At least 31 other states have adopted legislation to guide how body cameras are used or how information from them is made available, based on figures compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The nonpartisan legislative tracking organization has noted a spike in increased interest over the past year. Nearly three-fourths of all state legislatures in the country considered some form of body camera legislation in 2015, the organization’s data show.
Now, at least two bills are slated to be heard in Louisiana Legislature committees this week that would provide some state-level guidance on the growing use of police cameras.
“We’ve got to do something where we can have transparency with our police officers,” said state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge. “I want to be a part of something that’s smart, progressive and helps people get down to the truth — no matter what that truth is.”
High-profile incidents in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; New York City; and Chicago have led to a sharper focus on the emerging body camera technology that advocates say is a good thing for law enforcement.
“The law enforcement community that I’ve worked with fully support and embrace the technology,” said Sen. Ronnie Johns, a Lake Charles Republican who has sponsored one bill that seeks to rein in access to some of the footage shot by the cameras increasingly worn by cops in Louisiana. “They understand the value that it brings to them and the value that it brings to the public, but with it come a number of problems. We are trying to identify those problems within this piece of legislation in terms of privacy.”
Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport, said during a recent committee hearing that efforts to limit access to such videos give him cause for concern.
He cited the recent case of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. The 17-year-old was gunned down by police in late 2014. More than a year later, a public records request led to the release of video that showed the narrative offered by officers wasn’t accurate. An officer has since been charged in the teen’s death.
“My problem is looking at this thing realistically and why you want body cameras,” Tarver said. “If the police stop somebody, it should be public.”
A similar situation already has happened in Louisiana. Last fall, an independent police monitor’s report on a 2012 police raid in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans that led to the death of an unarmed man found several inconsistencies between three officers’ statements and video from a camera one of the officers was wearing.
“NOPD did not mention this clear inconsistency between recorded police testimony and video evidence in any of their reports,” the monitor’s report found.
Body cameras have been hailed for their ability to provide insight into police interactions and uncover civil rights violations — particularly in communities of color that have tensions with the law enforcement community.
But the approach to surveillance isn’t universally agreed upon.
Marcelle’s House Concurrent Resolution 59 would give a statewide task force more time to complete its work and come up with a comprehensive plan for how body-worn cameras, and the footage they capture, are regulated across Louisiana.
The Legislature created the task force last year to study the use of body cameras. It was supposed to submit a report to the Legislature, the governor and the Louisiana Supreme Court at least 30 days before the current legislative session started, but it never finished its report.
“I think it’s important that they complete their work,” Marcelle said.
Marcelle, who first started working on the body camera issue on the local level as a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, said she worries about bad officers and the fraternal camaraderie that can lead to cover-ups, such as the one the recent report in New Orleans appears to show.
“These body cameras are going to tell what really happened. They are the eyes that we can trust,” she said.
Johns said he was approached by law enforcement to help provide some guidance to the patchwork of policies and questions over how far law enforcement has to go to meet public records laws.
“It is a big issue — it’s a nationwide issue,” said Alexandria Police Chief Loren Lampert. “The interaction between an officer and a victim or suspect or witness, or a family situation where there’s no case filed — what we’re exposed to are the intimate details of your life and my life, and that may occur in a public place, but it’s not a public thing until it becomes a criminal issue.”
One of the big concerns on the part of law enforcement is the potential for privacy violations for sexual assault victims, confidential informants and others who may appear on videos. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, recommends that law enforcement officers who wear body cameras also wear stickers or pins to designate that cameras are in use.
“Obviously, I think we’d all agree that there’s an expectation of privacy when you enter a home,” said Lake Charles Police Chief Don Dixon. “There’s just a litany of problems.”
Johns’ Senate Bill 398 would make all videos and recordings from body-worn cameras exempt from the state’s public records laws. He’s now amending his proposal before bringing it up again to address concerns of media and other advocacy groups.
“The problem is that this technology is really scary in terms of unintended consequences,” said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. “This technology is out there and it’s expanding, and we really don’t have ways to deal with it.”
“We’ll probably be back next year because there are more and more issues of unintended consequences,” Adams added.
Marcelle said she’s also worried about the unintended consequences and the problems that could arise if the Legislature doesn’t offer guidance at the state level. She said it would be better for a broad coalition — representing law enforcement, district attorneys, defense lawyers and other interested parties — to form a task force to weigh all concerns.
“I think it’s important that we all come together and come up with some good policy for the state,” she said.