ACLU of PA: State Senate Bill Blocks Public Access to Police Video, Undermines Accountability

May 10, 2017
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HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Senate today passed legislation to severely restrict the ability of the public to access video recorded by police cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said that the bill undermines the goal of using body cameras as a means of accountability for police officers.

“If the public cannot obtain video produced by police cameras, they shouldn’t be used at all,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “While body cameras may be valuable to officers in carrying out their daily duties, the idea of using these cameras came to prominence because people were demanding that police operate with transparency, fairness, and accountability.

“This bill effectively hides what is captured by police cameras from the public. And that makes them merely another tool of surveillance.”

Introduced by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, Senate Bill 560 removes public requests for police camera video from the existing Right to Know Law and creates its own unique process for public access. That process gives law enforcement wide latitude to deny requests, including for “potential evidence” and “information pertaining to an investigation.”

“The reasons for denial will make it nearly impossible for the public or the press to ever obtain video produced by these cameras,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

An amendment to the bill that passed on Tuesday made some improvements to the legislation. That amendment eliminated language that required the court of common pleas to give “deference” to the law enforcement agency when a denial of a request is appealed. And it added language to require the law enforcement agency to make a reasonable effort to redact information that should be shielded from public view, such as the identity of a victim or witness.

Nevertheless, the amendment included flaws, according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania. With the amended language, the bill now allows a person only 20 days to file a request, down from the previous timeline of 60 days, and it requires a requestor to describe their relationship to the person in the video.

“The police are public servants, not a secret society,” Randol said. “With this bill, legislators are thumbing their noses at people who are calling for greater transparency and accountability from their police departments.”

SB 560 now heads to the state House of Representatives for consideration.

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