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Debate over police body camera use ongoing in Utah

Scott G Winterton/Deseret News

Debate over police body camera use ongoing in Utah

By Dennis Romboy | Posted - May 24, 2015 at 4:34 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — How or whether the state should govern the use of police body cameras will be subject of much debate among Utah legislators and law enforcement over the next few months.

A legislative committee tackled the issue for the first time Wednesday since shelving a bill earlier this year that would have required police agencies to set their own policies based on minimum state guidelines.

But numerous questions about privacy rights, when officers turn the cameras on and off, and the public's access to the video make drafting legislation complicated.

"I think there is a health suspicion about body cameras," said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton. "They are an effective law enforcement tool, no question. But there needs to balance in dealing with people's privacy."

Should a curious neighbor, for example, be able to obtain police video through the state's open records law to see what happened at the house next door?

McCay said Utah needs a statewide policy at least when it comes to the privacy issue "so we're not fighting this out in every county, in every courthouse throughout the state."

He said he hopes to have a bill ready for the 2016 Legislature.

But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said police departments should set their own policies.

"I think you have to let law enforcement determine what's best for them," he told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

Ray and McCay agreed that whatever lawmakers decide, they don't want to force police away from using cameras.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross, pointed out that a study of the Rialto, California, police department use of body cameras found a 60 percent reduction in officer use of force once the devices were deployed. It found that shifts without cameras had twice as many use of force incidents as shifts with cameras. Resident complaints dropped 88 percent from the previous year without cameras, according to the study.

"Those are startling, startling statistics," he said.

Tom Ross, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, cautioned legislators against approaching the body camera issue with the idea that they have to "fix" law enforcement because it's "running amok."

"We are doing the right things day in and day out over and over again," he said.

Lawmakers also have questions about how the state's open records law applies to police body camera video, specifically whether its classified as private or public.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said the video should be information to be used in a courtroom, not made available to the public or the media.

"When we use body cameras, we are not creating government records. It is evidence," he told the committee. "We shouldn't be broadcasting last moments of life. We shouldn't be broadcasting people in their worst moments that they've experienced."

The Government Operations Committee also talked about police body cameras Wednesday, specifically whether the video is public or private record.

"I can tell you that that's something a lot of people are concerned about," Rosemary Cundiff, government records ombudsman, told lawmakers.

In addition to how the state classifies the records, police agencies have concerns over how to segregate what's private and what's not in the video, she said.

Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act isn't a "paragon of clarity," legislative attorney Tom Vaughn told the committee.

Some provisions in the law allow police to designate video as protected for a pending investigation, though not forever protected after the case ends, he said. Video doesn't have to be disclosed if it's an unwarranted invasion of privacy, but that's open to interpretation, he said.

Vaughn said the law could be more specific, noting attempts to change are met with "skepticism and outcry."

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