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Will Arizona follow the national trend in banning police body worn camera footage?

Police officer turning on his body-worn camera.

As more law enforcement agencies in Arizona suit up officers with body-worn cameras, public access to this footage becomes a controversial topic.

The past several years has triggered a strong national reaction in regards to police-involved incidents resulting in death or serious bodily injury. In response, the national government and law enforcement agencies believe that cameras will include better evidence documentation and increased accountability and transparency.

As the program implementation rapidly expands through the country, one of the biggest questions surrounding cameras is whether the video footage should be eligible for public release under public record laws.

“The technology is ahead of the policy at this point,” said Chuck Wagner, deputy director of public affairs at the U.S. department of Justice, in charge of grant funding for cameras.

Law enforcement agencies are grappling with how to effectively manage this new stream of evidence, because cameras presents unique challenges and privacy threats that many state legislatures are debating. In the meantime, departments use their own discretion for how they deal with requests for video.

Arizona does not have official police body-worn cameras legislation on the books yet, so police departments statewide abide by Arizona public disclosure laws as guidelines to govern when footage is subject to public release.

Five of Arizona’s nine largest cities equip every uniformed police officer with a camera. These cities include Peoria, Chandler, Glendale, Flagstaff and Tempe. Phoenix, Tucson and Scottsdale have some cameras, while Yuma has none.

The Tucson Police Department currently has 70 body-worn cameras, but not enough for every officer. Tim Gilder, a TPD lieutenant, said anybody can come in, request footage and it will automatically be released if they meet the standard criteria for obtaining public records.

“They want to see that were doing our jobs and that were doing it correctly,” said Gilder. “Or they also want to see that we identify someone that is not doing their job and were not afraid to discipline or terminate the employee.”

Gilder said the last two officer-involved police shootings were posted within a week to YouTube through the public information officer.

Police body-worn cameras was one reform just about everyone across the ideological spectrum supported.

“Trust is built through transparency,” said Gilder, “and there’s no better way to show the public what is going on than by using body cameras.”

The small devices, typically mounted on officers’ shirts, offer the public a lens into law enforcement to ensure that police are acting reasonably and lawfully when interacting with the public or making arrests. Although it is not a panacea, cameras are a step to restore police accountability and transparency to the public.

Across the United States, 25 percent of police departments are equipping their officers with body cameras. As of August 2016, 42 of 68 “major city” police departments in the U.S. have camera programs with policies in place, according to the activist group Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Yet, many police departments around the country do not seem to be adapting to body-worn camera principles as openly as Arizona.

Already, at least 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation restricting public access to footage, and a dozen more are proposing legislation. Some laws also restrict any public disclosure of footage unless it is used as evidence in a criminal investigation.

If the public can’t gain access to the footage, critics say, then little will change regarding police accountability which damages the original intention of cameras to build trust in communities.

The ACLU believes these bills create a byzantine process to request data from police cameras.

“People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage,” said Daniela Velazquez, director of communications at the Missouri ACLU. “These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members.”

Public access to body-worn camera footage is a critical component to the program’s success. If footage that the public knows exists can easily be exempted from public view at police discretion, then the fundamental benefits of trust, objectivity, transparency and accountability are threatened, civil rights attorneys and community groups argue. 

Statistics provide evidence to those concerns.

Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Missouri police departments killed people at the highest rates in 2015, according to the FBI Crime Report.  These three states passed legislation that block public access to camera footage.

Although it is not an easy task, Arizona currently allows public access to camera footage. Arizona has no proposed bills yet to ban public access, but, if the state legislature follows the trend of other states across the country, it will be more difficult or even impossible to view camera footage.

Michael White, criminology and criminal justice professor at Arizona State University, said that law enforcement agencies and legislation must balance the legitimate interest of openness with protecting privacy rights.

White agrees that public access to camera footage is a sticky issue because it is tied to state laws, which vary tremendously.

“There is a lack of a standardized national approach to dealing with the increasing volume of footage generated by law enforcement agencies,” said White.

He believes this legislation is one step backward from the two-steps forward body-worn cameras initially triggered. By blocking access, the public is now reverting back to mistrust in law enforcement agencies, White said.

 Click here for a high-resolution photo.  

Zoe Wolkowitz is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at zwolkowitz@gmail.com