Louisiana legislators back off proposal to block access to police body camera footage _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Smile for the Camera: New Orleans Police Officer Lionel Reneau wears a body camera on his shirt.

Louisiana lawmakers have walked back from a proposal that sought to block public access to any recordings from police-worn body cameras.

A bill that would have made all body camera footage exempt from state public records requirements — unless a court ordered its release — was heavily amended before passing through the Senate Judiciary B Committee on Tuesday to largely mirror existing state public records laws.

Supporters of the bill say it will provide clarity and guidance for law enforcement as they navigate the new technology, instead of individual agencies relying on their own interpretations that can lead to lawsuits.

“This is a work in progress, and it’s a very small start,” said state Sen. Ronnie Johns, a Lake Charles Republican who sponsored the measure. “It’s a whole new world out there that we’ve never had to deal with before.”

Johns said it was important that the latest version of his Senate Bill 398 re-enforce that records can be withheld when there are valid privacy concerns. Several law enforcement officers spoke out in favor of it, citing examples of cases in which private information could make its way into a video. The bill also would clarify that recordings that are part of an ongoing investigation are withheld until court release.

Under the latest version of the proposal, anyone seeking access to body camera recordings that are public records would have to submit detailed requests, as they currently do, and pay for the copying of the footage in advance.

Scott Sternberg, a lawyer for the Louisiana Press Association who opposed the original version of the bill, said he didn’t object to the latest version as it heads to the full Senate because it doesn’t change current law.

“The new bill is a bit piecemeal, but it is the law currently,” he said. “We think it addresses the law enforcement concern until we can get a bigger framework in place.”

Legislators are still eyeing an opportunity to develop a more complete a set of guidelines for how recordings are used, storied and released to the public — likely through a statewide task force that, in addition to lawmakers, includes representatives from law enforcement, legal, community advocacy groups and the media.

High-profile, police-involved incidents across the country have led to an increased focus on the use of body cameras and access to the recordings they make.

House Concurrent Resolution 59, which would recreate a task force that expired without completing its report, is expected to be heard by a House committee in the coming days.

Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, said he thinks that task force will be key to developing policies that guide the use of body cameras.

He said people generally think the issue isn’t complicated, but layers of complexities emerge when it comes to the storage of routine video that shows no crimes or other questionable behavior.

“That a part of this process to determine how do you handle that,” Morrell said. “It’s all very complicated.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .