Trending Topics

Mo. measure would keep police recordings from public

Video or audio recorded from any device used by a cop — such as one attached to a car, boat or aircraft — would be exempt from state’s open records law

By Alex Stuckey
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Jasmin Maurer believes St. Louis’ current climate of police officer mistrust after Ferguson could be alleviated with the use of body cameras — but not if those recordings are kept from the public.

That, however, is exactly what Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, has proposed. In a measure he outlined Wednesday to the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee, all videos from a police body camera would be exempt from the state’s open records law.

Attorney General Chris Koster recently suggested barring public access to body camera recordings as well.

“By not making (the videos) public record, it seems useless to have (body cameras) when the purpose is to create a system to go back and see what’s going on,” said Maurer, a St. Louis resident representing the Don’t Shoot Coalition.

The measure wouldn’t exempt just body cameras, however. Video or audio recorded from any device used by an officer — such as one attached to a car, boat or aircraft — also would be exempt.

Libla’s measure is one of at least eight addressing police audio and video recordings after the fatal shooting in August of Michael Brown by then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. A video might have clarified the circumstances.

Those in support of Libla’s bill cited privacy concerns.

Sheldon Lineback, executive director for Missouri Police Chiefs Association, noted numerous instances in which recordings were obtained by the public and then uploaded to YouTube.

“Individuals may make mistakes and those mistakes ... never come off the Internet,” Lineback said Wednesday.

But Maurer and several other people testifying Wednesday noted that guidelines could help prevent that problem.

“I think there are ways to solve the legitimate privacy concerns by mandating guidelines for policies and leaving the Sunshine Law relatively intact,” said John Chasnoff, representing Drone Free St. Louis.

Some of Chasnoff’s suggestions included informing people they were being recorded, getting consent from crime victims before recording in their homes and prohibiting it during strip searches, for example.

Doug Crews, the Missouri Press Association executive director, said he would be in favor of recordings’ being closed until an investigation is completed or declared inactive, as already stipulated in the state’s open-record law.

“We should not be in a state where secret police records are the norm,” Crews said. “Refusing to release records can only lead to mistrust.”

Also under the measure, the state could not require law enforcement agencies to provide and use body cameras.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said Wednesday he would be in favor of keeping body cameras on continuously should his officers ever be equipped with them. “Having to remember whether to turn a camera off and on creates tremendous problems,” Dotson said, noting that officers didn’t need more distractions.

But continuous recordings would be problematic, said Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

“I know people think police are robots, but they do use the lavatory, and I don’t know if anyone wants to see that,” he quipped.

He said Missouri law requires that at least one party consent to a recorded conversation and that officers would not give their consent.

“It’s not consent if it’s required by their employer, and if the person being recorded is likely not giving their consent, there’s a privacy issue and statutory issue there that nobody seems to worry about much,” he said.

Dotson said that between privacy issues and significant storage costs for keeping the large number of videos, he doesn’t see body cameras in use here anytime soon.

He said Koster’s bill might not be the complete answer but was at least “a start” to address privacy questions.

The bill is SB 331.

Copyright 2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch