SALEM — Oregon lawmakers and advocacy groups are fighting over a proposed new law governing how police departments use body cameras and, in particular, how and when to release to the public the footage the cameras capture.

After a raft of controversial incidents of police use of force across the nation in recent months, calls for more body cameras on officers have multiplied. Polls find the cameras are overwhelmingly popular with the public as a way to keep tabs on what police are doing and ensure they don’t break laws or department conduct policies.

But lawmakers are struggling over how to balance use of the cameras — and public release of the footage — with the privacy rights of crime victims, crime suspects, police officers and bystanders.

Lawmakers in at least 16 states have responded this year to the anticipated proliferation of police body cameras by proposing or enacting ways to restrict public access to the footage, The Associated Press has reported.

In Salem, lawmakers initially proposed making body camera videos almost entirely exempt from disclosure. There would have been a few key exceptions, including some cases where the footage involved use of force by an officer.

The proposed law, House Bill 2571, was amended last week, however, to make footage somewhat more accessible to the public under Oregon’s public records laws.

Under the new version, footage generally could be released if it is deemed “in the public interest.” If a local police force and local district attorney ruled that a video didn’t meet that threshold, the person or news organization seeking the video could appeal to circuit court.

Other tweaks to HB 2571 would require every person’s face in a released body camera video, including police officers’, to be continuously blurred. Without software, face-blurring can be costly to carry out, and video requestors would likely have to pay for it.

The bill would also require all requests for videos to be for specific incidents, not for longer stretches of time.

Also, HB 2571 would mandate police officers turn on their cameras the moment they develop a suspicion that a crime has been committed.

House vote is pending

The House is expected to vote on the bill early this week. If passed, it would head to the Senate.

The proposed policy has alarmed media groups and other advocates of open government. They argue that current public records law already allows police agencies to withhold video during an ongoing investigation.

These groups also argue that the whole point of body camera videos is to let the public review disputed incidents. Access to longer stretches of body camera footage, meanwhile, would allow the public to identify potential patterns of misconduct by an officer or department, they say.

The proposal to blur all faces “is almost going the wrong way, because it makes it more difficult for … the media to know what’s going on,” said GOP Rep. Andy Olson of Albany.

Ellen Miller, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, said the group is concerned about the face-blurring provision. That means police will be “extensively editing footage prior to releasing it,” she said, leading to delays and cost.

“There’s just too much restriction around the release of these records” under the current bill.

The broadcasters’ association and the Oregon Newspapers Publishers Association — of which The Register-Guard is a member — hope to persuade the Senate to make more changes to the bill.

They want all body camera footage that is recorded in public places or that involves use of force by officers to be subject to current state public records law, without the “public interest” release threshold.

Privacy and due process

Advocates on the other side — police groups, defense attorneys, and the city of Portland, which wants statewide body camera standards enacted before it equips 600 officers with cameras — say lawmakers must consider personal privacy.

Gail Meyer, a lobbyist for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said she is concerned about crime suspects’ right to due process.

“Our concern is that footage is released and immediately ends up on the evening news,” she said. “That will lead to public opinion forming before all the facts in a case come out.”

Under current public records law, however, a police agency can withhold video if it is part of a pending investigation.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson, a Portland Democrat who has led the work on HB 2571, said she had to consider elements other than the desire for police transparency.

“There is also public interest in protecting people’s privacy and not showing potentially someone’s worst moment in their entire life” on TV or the Internet, she said.

No special exemption was created in Oregon public records law when police recently began installing dashboard cameras in patrol cruisers. The public and the media can obtain those videos once an agency has completed its investigation.

Williamson argued that body cameras create “an entirely new dynamic around privacy.”

“Body cameras are small, they can be in people’s homes, they can in really close proximity to people,” she said. “With dash cams, you get one view of the back of a car.”

Facing the blur

Williamson said the provision to blur all faces is about creating “parity.” The American Civil Liberties Union pushed for all citizens’ faces to be removed from the videos; police unions pushed for an amendment that allows officers’ faces to be blurred.

Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, a former television reporter, said he wants the public, with the help of body camera video, to be able to uncover “potential abuses” and instances of racial profiling by police.

But he added, “My former business has become less about information and more about titillation. I’m more than cynical about how (full access to body camera footage) might be handled” by media outlets.

An argument in favor of a statewide law is that law enforcement agencies are setting their own rules on videos.

Eugene is one of the only jurisdictions in Oregon to have equipped some of its officers with body cameras. The department has 18 cameras used by officers who patrol the downtown or are on traffic duty.

EPD spokeswoman Melinda McLaughlin said the department doesn’t have a separate written policy on requests for body camera footage. It treats footage the same as dashboard camera or Taser camera footage.

The department blurs all officers’ faces in videos it releases, interpreting an existing state law that says a law enforcement agency can’t “disclose a photograph” of an officer without their consent as also applying to video footage.

Conversely, Oregon State Police doesn’t blur officers’ faces in dashboard and body camera videos it releases to the public, agency spokesman Lt. Josh Brooks said.

All state patrol cars are equipped with dashboard cameras, Brooks said, and some of its approximately 600 officers have body cameras.

Video reality

McLaughlin and Brooks said there are a number of existing exemptions in public records law that allow video footage to be withheld, such as with an ongoing criminal investigation or when there is an internal personnel investigation.

Other existing exemptions allow police not to disclose videos that would reveal police tactics or potential informants, Brooks said.

Eugene and the Oregon State Police already have the software needed to blur confidential information in videos they release to the public. Eugene charges a flat fee $25 on all released videos requested, plus $32.60 an hour for required editing work, while the state charges a $30 flat fee and $25 per editing hour.

Brooks said the state fields about 20 public records requests for dashboard and body cameras videos a month, a figure that “has been trending upwards steadily.”

Eugene, meanwhile, has fielded only a handful of requests for body camera footage since they were introduced last year, McLaughlin said.

Springfield’s police department plans to buy five or six body cameras this summer, said Captain Richard Lewis, the department’s deputy chief, using $60,000 in federal funds to buy the cameras and the computer servers.

Lewis said the agency has not yet devised a policy for responding to records requests.

The view of the ACLU

Kimberly McCullough, a lobbyist with the Oregon Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization is backing the current version of HB 2571, due to concerns about privacy.

McCullough said she believes “the public interest test” is a good way to prevent excessive footage from being released through records requests.

What types of videos are deemed to be in the “public interest” will become clearer “once the issue gets litigated and we get some case-law clarity,” she said.

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