Body camera bills designed to help police-citizen trust
For years, law enforcement officers have been captured on video in the performance of their jobs, and that hasn’t always shown them in the best light.
Now, under a proposed body-camera grant program approved by a House committee Tuesday, those officers can use the same technology to exonerate themselves when someone claims they’ve done something wrong.
That, at least, is part of the reason behind HB1285, one of a package of law enforcement reform measures that the Colorado Legislature is considering in the wake of dramatic events involving police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in the nation.
Other measures working their way through the Legislature include procedures for independent reviews of officer-involved shootings, protections for citizens’ video recordings of law enforcement activities, protections for citizens in court who were given an unlawful order by a police officer, and additions of non-law enforcement people to the state panel that certifies law enforcement officers.
The measures, most of which have bipartisan support in the House and Senate, are designed not only to protect citizens from officers who do their jobs badly, but the officers from making mistakes in the first place. Together, they are designed to rebuild trust in law enforcement, lawmakers said.
“This bill does not mandate anyone to use body cameras, but it does make it easier for those law enforcement agencies that want to use body cameras,” said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, one of that bill’s sponsors.
“The reasons some law enforcement agencies want to use body cameras are numerous,” Kagan said. “In some places they’ve been shown to increase transparency and increase citizens’ view of legitimacy. They’ve been shown to have a civilizing effect resulting in improved behavior among both police officers and citizens.”
The body-camera measure creates a special grant program not only to help law enforcement agencies that want to use the camera to purchase them, but also money to store images and handle making them available to the public when appropriate.
The measure also creates a special state commission to recommend policies on their use.
Kagan and others who testified in favor of the measure, including Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, said issues surrounding the use of body cameras aren’t as simple as strapping one on and recording. No one testified against the bill.
Other issues include when officers can and cannot use them, how they are to be used as evidence, how to store recordings, and when those recordings could be made available to the public.
“A very important part of this is to be able to flesh out the legal and policy procedure issues that come along with body cameras,” Vallario told the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill on a 13-0 vote. “Although many agencies have used body cameras, many more have had dash cameras for years. I think it’s important that we have a good understanding of when an officer might be able to turn a camera off, when he would be required to, when it could be turned on, what will be stored, and what will be covered under the Colorado Open Records Act and the Criminal Justice Records Act.”
The Fruita Police Department is one agency that recently said they will use cameras on a trial basis, and they have established a proposed set of rules on their use. Those rules include not turning cameras on in areas where people, including fellow officers, have a reasonable expectation of privacy, in a medical facility unless there is a need to document evidence, and focusing the cameras only on those involved in an incident.
The department’s policy also bars its use with undercover officers and informants, and instructs officers not to record casual contacts with the public.
The House measures now head to the House Appropriations Committee, where legislative budget writers have earmarked money to pay costs associated with the bills.
Another measure that cleared the Colorado Senate, SB219, requires law enforcement agencies to create multi-jurisdictional review panels to examine police shootings, something some agencies already do, including those in the Grand Valley.
That measure, which won unanimous support in the Senate on Tuesday, also requires a district attorney that declines to prosecute an officer for whatever reason to make a written report of those reasons and make it available to the public, also something some prosecutors already do.