On Wednesday, 10/19/2016, the PA Senate passed a bill which would exempt recordings from law enforcement's body cameras and dashboard cameras from public records requests. The bill would make it nearly impossible to obtain footage of police misconduct, or anything that is in the public interest, even if the person requesting it appears in the video.
The Senate approved the bill, 45-5, without debate. 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 bill has heavy support from law enforcement organizations. Those organizations include police unions as well as the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
The bill also carries plenty of opposition. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has said that even video where a requester is present, can be denied under the bill. "It will make getting footage from them nearly impossible" said a representative from the Philadelphia branch. "It will diminish transparency and give the public the impression the police have something to hide."
House Bill 976 not only allows the police to refuse body camera footage, it also does much more. The bill, combined with House Bill 1538, calls for the end of releasing the officers' names whom are involved in incidents. The only time a name will be released is if the officer ends up being charged with a crime.
Even The Pennsylvania News Media Association has come out in opposition of the bill. They said that the process to get footage from police is already nearly endless.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County) said passing the bill will encourage more police agencies to get body cams. He says that many of the departments that have opted to not use them have sited the strain of the records requests as reason. Without the burden of legally needing to release such records, the departments would be more easily swayed into their use. Greenleaf says that the need for the cams is absolute. If they need to address and solve all the police issues with them, then so be it.
The bill does not address when a police camera must be turned on and how long data must be stored before it is erased- Greenleaf said those issues will have to wait until next year. Conveniently, the bill does grant an officer the RIGHT to film inside your home without a warrant.
Gov. Tom Wolf's office did not endorse the bill. He made a two sentence statement to the press acknowledging the bill and saying it needed some work.
I called my local representative, Steve Samunlson, who voted against the bill. He said that it seemed most of the smaller areas were against the bill. "It was being pushed hard by a Philly lobbyist" he said. In our area, the vote was six: yes and five: no for the bill.
These are truly scary days. In my opinion, what we are seeing is the end of the police accountability movement. The powers that be have seen what information does for their image. When a video can be seen across the globe in a matter of hours, every bad act is magnified. Rather than address the major issues the public has been focused on lately, the government has chosen a route of ignorance and force. They have decided that if the public is outraged by the truth, they will simply hide the truth from us. They can let shootings and abuse blow over if the perpetrators are nameless and faceless.
Next, they will outlaw us being allowed to film them. Transparency is a joke. Even today without these new "guidelines", any reporter will tell you how hard it is to gain access to records. Police publicly smile at us all and say they care about the public and being open, but as soon as one of their cops is caught doing wrong it's wall of silence time. Suddenly, the public sees where they stand. We are nothing. They are the rulers and they will dictate the terms of our existence.
Am I the only one confused? "The police" do not exist. They are a group of servants that volunteered for a public job. They serve us. We tell them what rules we want enforced in our area. Or at least that's how it started. In the past several years, the police have more and more forced their own will on us. Between checkpoints no one voted for, to access to our records being cut off, more and more cops are looking like an invading force rather than friendly neighborhood helpers. For God's sake, they even have TANKS.
Police supporters keep smiling and giving them more and more too. OK, I get it, you love cops. Maybe they don't need automatic machine guns, tanks, full camouflage, AND immunity from public in order to make sure little Timmy gets across the street safely.
We need to wake up in a major way. PA is not the first state to do this. How are we allowing this to happen to us? California and North Carolina both have passed similar bills already. While we sit around complaining about voting and protests, they are daily passing new laws that take more and more freedom from us.
To sum this up, this proves nearly every argument against police body cam programs being used. The only reliable video source is privately owned footage. Preferably that of which is live streamed. If you are depending on a state owned video to help you, you are setting yourself up for failure. The only time those cameras are used are to help the officers. They will be used against a suspect, for statements made. They will even be used to clear an officer of an accusation. In the event that it is the officer that has done wrong, you can expect the footage to be kept from you- pending a lengthy (and expensive) battle.
It's not too late to stop this from become law. While it passed in the Senate, the bill must be also be approved by the House of Representatives before November 30, 2016 (which is when all non-approved bills for this year die). However, there are only five scheduled voting days left before that date.
Contact your representatives NOW and tell them you are against these bills.
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