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EDITORIAL: Scott needs to rethink stance on body cameras

Though body cameras seem like a surefire way to catch what happens between the police and the public, Florida lawmakers recently agreed to limit how much can be seen.

As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last week to exempt body-camera footage taken inside a home, hospital, mental health institution or any location where privacy is “reasonably expected” from public record laws, allowing only law enforcement or those in the video to release the footage. 

While privacy is certainly an issue with the widespread use of body cameras, this approach provides officers too much license to hide information when the purpose of body cameras is to make police relations more transparent.

This seems like a small change in comparison to the larger criticisms against body cameras. They aren’t backed by everyone simply because of the limited evidence to show they do improve transparency. For instance, when there was video evidence taken by a bystander to prove NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, a grand jury still decided not to indict him. This was an example of officer accountability at its worst. 

Yet, body cameras do have their place. 

As found in a University of Cambridge study on the Rialto Police Department in California last year, reports on officers’ use of force dropped by 60 percent. On top of that, the department received 88 percent less citizen complaints against officers in the year the study was conducted. 

Despite being the only leading study on body cameras, along with the lack of sufficient evidence to show they provide a “net benefit” to policing, as mentioned in the Atlantic, this study does show the odds of body cameras actually working. 

Though body cameras do not fix the problem of police brutality, one argument, as noted by Slate, suggests their value doesn’t necessarily lay in what is recorded, but in what is not recorded, since they play a role in the prevention of the use of force.

The question then becomes the role privacy plays in all of this. While the recently-signed bill states the need for privacy outweighs public benefit, there are ways to provide both privacy and full disclosure. 

As noted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), continuous recording, as opposed to recording that would give officers license to turn cameras on and off, would subject anyone to mass surveillance, especially in areas with highly-populated public streets. Hence, the Legislature could argue that any recording is an invasion of privacy.

While privacy is a valid concern, the new law provides law enforcement too much control in sharing videos. 

Instead, as the ACLU noted, parts of a video could be blurred or the audio distorted to maintain privacy. Or, before entering private properties, officers could give notice that they are recording. 

The policies and expectations for body cameras are anything but uniform throughout the country, and there’s still a long way to go in figuring out the best way to use them and how much control law enforcement should have over their footage. But with this new law, it’s clear Florida still has work to do.