A bill limiting the public’s ability to obtain body- and dash-camera footage from law enforcement agencies is being pushed by a local legislator at the behest of Mobile’s public safety director and others working in the field.
Read for the first time last week, HB373 was introduced by Rep. Shane Stringer, R-Satsuma, who was elected in 2018 while serving as chief of the Satsuma Police Department. His bill would set rules for who can request footage captured by body and dash cameras used by police in Alabama for the first time.
Because Alabama’s laws haven’t caught up to the new technology, police recordings are currently not considered public records like other documents produced and maintained with taxpayer money. This has created a situation that leaves the agencies that own the recordings in charge of who gets to see them.
Policies on releasing body-camera footage can vary from city to city, county to county, and in some cases, situation to situation within the same department. There have been cases where videos that exonerate officers or show them helping a citizen are released without prompting. In other cases, it’s taken years of lawsuits to force police departments to turn over less-than-flattering footage to the public.
FOX10 News spent two years in a lawsuit with the city of Mobile over body-camera footage from a 2016 incident where several McGill-Toolen High School students were improperly pepper-sprayed by an Mobile Police Department (MPD) officer. The officer was disciplined, but the city refused to produce the tape until ordered to by a judge.
Stringer’s proposed legislation would finally settle some of the ambiguity that surrounds body-camera footage in Alabama, but it would do so by solidifying that police recordings “are not public records.”
Under the law, the head of the agency that has the recordings would still be in charge of who they are released to, but those agencies would only be able to release a recording to other law enforcement officers, someone who is actually captured in the footage or someone representing a person in the footage.
There is no provision that would allow a member of the public or a media outlet to request copies of police body- or dash-camera footage related to any active or inactive case. That has been a particularly concerning issue for the Alabama Press Association (APA), which currently opposes the bill.
“We are opposed to the bill in its current form, as it completely exempts all body-cam video from the Open Records Act,” APA Executive Director Felicia Mason told Lagniappe. “We hope to work with the sponsor on an amendment or substitute bill that allows reasonable exemptions similar to what we have found in other states.”
In addition to limiting who can access those videos, Stringer’s bill would also prevent judges hearing challenges to an agency’s decision on whether to release certain footage from awarding attorneys’ fees to any party. That would likely prevent First Amendment attorneys from working with smaller publications for free because of the possibility of recovering attorneys’ fees after a case is resolved.
While police dash cameras have been around for years, cities around the country, including Mobile, began investing in worn body cameras for officers around 2015 in the wake of several officer-involved shootings that led to unrest and distrust of the police in communities around the United States.
Since 2015, the city of Mobile has put more than $400,000 a year into body cameras for officers, but that footage has been kept from the public’s eye in many cases, which has raised concerns among some members of the Mobile City Council who pushed for body cameras in the first place.
According to Stringer, Mobile Public Safety Director James Barber is who first approached him about the bill, though he said other law enforcement officials and agencies have expressed interest in establishing a streamlined law governing how and when body camera footage is released.
Stringer said the current situation, where policies and expectations can vary from region to region, isn’t good for police, the media or the public. While he understands the interest the media and public have in certain cases, he expressed concern about the impact some footage could have on police investigations.
“Law enforcement already has a problem getting witnesses to come forward and talk with us, and if their faces are captured in footage that’s released in the media, I have a feeling we’re going to have less witnesses coming forward,” Stringer said. “At the same time, we also have to find the balance of being able to release certain things to the media, and this isn’t going to be a simple task. It’s a topic that deserves a lot of attention, and we need to make sure we get it right.”
Stringer said he’s already heard from the APA, the Alabama Law Enforcement Association and other groups that have raised concerns over the bill’s current language. He said he’s open to hearing their concerns and working on the bill to gain more support, but also believes the issue needs to be addressed.
The issues surrounding body camera footage have become more prevalent as more and more departments adopt them. Stringer himself was part of an officer-involved shooting only a couple of years ago that occurred after he’d won his seat in the House, but before he officially took office. According to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), 63-year-old Ulman Jerald Roberts was shot by Stringer and Citronelle police officer Alfred Webb during a domestic incident in Citronelle on Sept. 7, 2018.
Stringer, who was still the Satsuma Police Chief at the time, was not outfied with the body camera because he wasn’t a patrol officer. Officials with MCSO, who investigated the shooting, said Stringer responded to the scene after he heard a call for assistance from a Citronelle police officer and was nearby.
The investigation later found that Stringer and Webb were justified in the shooting and was closed.
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