Bay State lawmakers have spent a lot of time congratulating themselves lately for a series of modest reforms — now more than three years old — aimed at improving government transparency and ensuring citizen access to public information.
But because this is the Massachusetts Legislature, no small step forward can be taken without an equal or larger step back.
In this case, it’s a bill up for discussion this week that would exempt all police dashcam and body-camera footage from the provisions of the public records law. Under the legislation sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Denise Provost of Somerville, police could refuse to turn over footage for the public for any reason — and without giving a reason.
Provost said the idea is to protect the identities of bystanders and innocent people who might be caught on film.
Hogwash. The public records law already allows for redaction of images in such cases. And if the footage is part of an ongoing investigation, law enforcement can legally keep it hidden from the public. Provost’s imagined “bystanders” — very few Massachusetts communities use the devices — already have protection.
As Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office helps oversee the state’s public records law, told the Boston Globe in eviscerating the proposal, “There is absolutely no need for this. A blanket exemption undercuts the whole purpose of having bodycams.”
Bodycams and dashcams were designed in no small part to give the public better oversight into how law enforcement does its job. The footage can be especially useful when force is used. In recent cases in cities like Chicago and New York, for example, footage gleaned from bodycams directly contradicted the testimony of officers involved in police shootings.
Those cases, of course, are outliers. Much more often, footage is used to back up officers’ claims during criminal proceedings. Used correctly, it is an effective tool in guaranteeing the public’s safety.
“The purpose of police bodycams and dashcams is to increase transparency and law enforcement accountability to the public, which ultimately fosters trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “ Preventing public disclosure of bodycam and dashcam recordings in all cases runs counter to that purpose. Bodycams and dashcams cannot be effective tools for accountability if the public can never see the images they capture.”
Lawmakers need to reject this proposal outright.