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Senate bill would restrict public access to footage from police body cameras

Logos of the St. Louis County and St. Louis Metropolitan Police.
St. Louis County website / file photo

Footage from police body cameras would be exempt from Missouri’s open records law if a bill moving through the Missouri Senate becomes law.

Senate Bill 331, sponsored by state Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, would exempt any video or audio attached to an officer’s body, car, boat or aircraft from being a public record. It would also prohibit the state from requiring police to wear body cameras, leaving it up to local departments instead. The Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety committee heard testimony on the bill Wednesday.

After the committee hearing, Libla said that the bill is meant to create a “check and balance” on the public’s access to the video and to avoid invasions of privacy.

“You know when you need to go into a residence, you’re videoing everything in the person’s house,” Libla said. “There’s just no end to it. There needs to be a manner for that to be controlled and to be accessed.”

John Chasnoff of Drone Free St. Louis said his group supports the bill’s provision to bar the state from mandating body cameras but suggested guidelines for body cameras instead of a “blanket prohibition” on access to the video.

Chasnoff outlined a few possible guidelines:

  • Body cameras should be left on whenever interacting with the public
  • Officers must notify people when the cameras are recording
  • Officers should receive the consent of crime victims and residents when they enter homes
  • There needs to be discretionary use of the cameras when police are interviewing witnesses
  • There should be no secretive recording during events such as protests
  • Cameras should be prohibited when police are interviewing confidential informants or conducting strip searches

Other groups, such as the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, also supported the bill’s provision to allow local departments to decide on the use of body cameras, citing cost concerns. Kevin Ahlbrand, the group’s president, said the St. Louis Police Department determined it would cost $8.9 million a year to use the cameras and store the data.
But Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said the bill could create an environment of mistrust.

“We should not be a state where secret police records are the norm,” Crews said. “Because refusing to release records can only lead to mistrust in law enforcement and a belief that something is being hidden.”

Jasmin Maurer of the Don't Shoot Coalition said questioned restricting the public access to footage from police cameras.

"By not making this video public record, it seems almost useless to have body cameras when the purpose of a body camera is to create a system so that we can go back and look and see what happened." 

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, weighed in on the issue when he was in St. Louis and talking about the role of the National Guard.

"Clearly, some issues need to be worked through in the legislature about cameras and public," said Nixon.  "Those are issues that are best handled as you move through the legislative process to strike the right balance. Certainly there are situations where (cameras) should be and situations where they shouldn’t be. As you all in the media (know), you have not seen any national pictures of the beheadings by ISIS. I mean, there are times when you have to have not just a switch on and off. That’s what the legislative process is all about. I’m hopeful this year they have hearings and have a process to get us to a reasonable policy there."

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis, proposed a bill earlier this month to require body cameras on all law enforcement officers.

The committee took no action on the bill Wednesday.