Following the unrest caused by the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle introduced more than 40 bills amending the law enforcement and court systems, with one proving particularly controversial.
State Sen. Doug Libla (R) introduced a bill that would exempt any videos taken by police, including everything from body cameras to dashboard cameras, from public release.
Currently, any member of the public can request such material through the state's open records law, with a few narrow exemptions including cases involving juveniles or open investigations. If it becomes law, Libla's bill would ban the public from viewing any videos.
"Any recording captured by a camera" used by or attached to a police officer "shall not be a public record for purposes of the state's open records law... and shall not be disclosed by a law enforcement agency except upon order of a court in the course of a criminal investigation or prosecution or civil litigation," the bill reads. The text also adds that "no law enforcement agency shall be required by the state to provide cameras... to officers employed by the agency, not shall the state require any peace officer to wear such cameras."
"We should not be in a state where secret police records are the norm,” said Sheldon Lineback, the executive director of the Missouri Press Association. “Refusing to release records can only lead to mistrust.”
Others, including Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster (D), have expressed concerns about providing more access to police videos.
"Currently, Missouri's Sunshine Law provides news media and entertainment producers nearly unfettered access to videos from body-worn cameras. Adoption of body-worn cameras must not lead to a new era of voyeurism and entertainment television at the expense of Missourians' privacy," Koster recently wrote. "Therefore, I urge [state lawmakers] to consider amendments...to protect such video footage from those who would monetize it or use it to exploit the people it depicts."
The Obama administration in December proposed a $263 million program to increase the use of body cameras by law enforcement, largely on the state level.
Libla's legislation and others on the subject are largely in response to the incident last August in which Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The incident attracted national and international attention because of the local police force's militarized response to protests in the area, as well as a grand jury decision in November not to indict Wilson.