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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently called for more First Amendment and open government safeguards in a police body camera policy proposed by the Rhode Island Attorney General and Dept. of Public Safety.
Journalist and NEFAC Board of Directors member Tim White testified at an Aug. 3 hearing on behalf of the coalition and emphasized the need for better public access to body camera footage. NEFAC reiterated the point and provided a more detailed response to the draft policy in an Aug. 16 letter.
“The use of body-worn cameras can be a benefit to both police officers and the citizens they encounter,” wrote NEFAC. “The transparency they provide can build trust within communities — but there needs to be strong safeguards in place for citizen accessibility and the constitutional rights we all enjoy.”
The coalition focused on the following issues in its written testimony:
(1) The draft policy allows the release of body camera footage showing excessive force by police officers once the investigation into the incident is substantially completed. This standard should be used in combination with a specific time-frame to prevent abuse. Without a deadline to act as a ceiling — NEFAC recommends 30 days — law enforcement officials would have the ability to needlessly delay the release of the footage.
(2) The policy allows an officer to temporarily mute the body-worn camera while consulting with other members of law enforcement. This should not be allowed. Conversations between law enforcement officers can inform us about the officers’ intent and motives during an incident. They should be recorded. State law already allows the content of the conversation to be kept secret in some circumstances. The conversations should be recorded, however, so the public can at least argue for their release.
(3) The release of body-worn camera recordings — like all public records — should be made with as little cost to the public as possible. While the recordings are subject to the fees outlined in the state’s public records law, history shows their release to often be prohibitively expensive. The only way such fees can be appealed is in Superior Court which is not a feasible option for nearly all citizens and the newsrooms that serve them. The rules and regulations should include a mechanism or fee structure that prevents police departments from excessively charging for body-worn camera recordings or, at the very least, provide an easier and more expeditious way to appeal those costs.
(4) Any video that is captured by a body-worn camera as part of an arrest should be immediately released as part of the arrest report. It should be made clear in the rules and regulations that the footage is an extension of the narrative which the Office of the Attorney General has already deemed public under state law. The requirement will help citizens better understand how arrests are occurring in their communities and set an expectation of transparency within those agencies responding to requests for arrest records.
NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. The coalition previously testified on the use of police body cameras in Rhode Island last September and has been publicly advocating for a policy that prioritizes transparency. NEFAC is a member of Access/RI which also submitted testimony on Aug. 17 addressing several transparency concerns in the proposed rules and regulations of police body cameras. Learn more about the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act and other state FOI laws here.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Leadership Circle donors include the Rhode Island Foundation, Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Boston University, the Academy of New England Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, Genie Gannett for the First Amendment Museum, Linda Pizzuti Henry, Connecticut Public and GBH-Boston.