Senate passes bill restricting body-cam recording requests
Legislation approved Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Senate would allow police departments across the state to refuse public requests for copies of video recordings by officers, unless a court orders the release.
The bill sets a sweeping policy to exempt recordings from body cameras and dashboard cameras from public records requests in Pennsylvania.
The Senate approved SB 976, 45-5, without debate on wording made public the previous day. All of the senators who represent parts of York County voted in favor of it. It goes to the House of Representatives with just five scheduled voting days left in the legislative session that ends Nov. 30, after which all bills die.
The York City Police Department is one of the few in the state that has rolled out a department-wide body camera program. York City Police started with a 14-officer pilot program in February before expanding the program over the course of the summer to the full force of around 100 officers.
At the start of the program, officers recorded video without audio, but after a couple of months, the department added audio recording. York City Police turn their cameras off when entering people's homes. In Pennsylvania, law enforcement personnel are allowed to record video in people's homes, but it's against the law for police officers to record audio in private residences — unless this bill passes.
Local advocates, such as York NAACP head Sandra Thompson and Access-York chief Rick Azzaro have said it's important that police be able to record inside people's homes, as many of the interactions inside — such as domestic-violence calls — are among the most fraught. Thompson, though, also kept a focus on the body cameras as a tool for police oversight, which is mainly possible if the footage is more accessible to the general public.
When reached by phone last week, Thompson said she was concerned that this bill is entirely focused on using the cameras as a way to better prosecute people at the expense of using them as an oversight tool.
"This is highly concerning, because it’s not really geared toward protecting of the public," she said.
She said she's bothered by the fact that the people in the recordings don't have guaranteed access to them, and she wants there to be language in the law to give people the choice of not being recorded. She also would like there to be more mechanisms in place so the police can't unilaterally choose make recordings public without the people in them wanting them to be public.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon. He's spoken in favor of previous version of this bill, citing the need for protection for both officers and the public in interactions in private residences.
The bill is supported by law-enforcement organizations, including the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, but opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it would make it nearly impossible to obtain video that is in the public interest, even if the requester is in the video. The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association also opposes the bill.
It's unclear how many departments have body cameras or dashboard cameras in Pennsylvania, officials have said. This bill's sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, said passing the bill will encourage more police agencies to do so.
The agencies, Greenleaf said, will not employ video cameras if they fear expensive and time-consuming public records requests that require hours spent copying video and redacting sensitive images.
"The major issue here is we want body cams, and we're not going to get it if the townships, the police chiefs, are going to oppose it," Greenleaf said.
The bill also clarifies that officers can gather body camera footage inside a private residence while on duty, in an effort to address police department concerns about violating the state's surveillance law.
The bill does not address when a police camera must be turned on and how long data must be stored before it is erased, and Greenleaf said those issues will have to wait until next year.
Gov. Tom Wolf's office did not endorse the bill. In a two-sentence statement, the office said it continues to work on the bill with the Legislature. A spokesman for House Majority Leader David Reed, R-Indiana, said the chamber will review it.
The ACLU agreed that some police video should be shielded from public view, noting that crime victims and witnesses need protection. But it also pointed to hurdles the public would face under the bill in obtaining video, including a "byzantine" process to request it.
"In practice, under this bill, the public will rarely, if ever, see video produced by police departments that shows misconduct by officers," the ACLU said in a two-page memo to senators.
Under the bill, someone seeking a copy of police video would have 14 days after it was recorded to request it under the state's Right to Know Law. The request must identify the incident, date, time and location, as well as identify or describe each individual present.
It is grounds for a denial if the county district attorney or state attorney general certifies that the recording is part of an investigation.
Erik Arneson, the head of the state's Office of Open Records, said that this bill would change the process for appeal — currently, people should submit Right-to-Know requests to the police department, and then denials would be subject to appeal to Arneson's office. Under Greenleaf's bill, it's no longer done through the Right-to-Know law; a person would submit a written request to the police department, which, along with the DA, could issue a denial. The appeal of that would then be to the county's court of common pleas, he said.
Arneson said the standard for denial would become broader, too.
However, he said this is a more open process than some other states have put into law; some of them flatly deny any requests, Arneson said.
"This is a notably better approach than many other states have taken," he said.