Body-cam folly


Sunday’s editorial, Don’t shut the courthouse door, told of the dogged battles some Miamians are waging to pry loose public information that they are convinced will tell the real story about whether the city of Miami has been an honest player in a questionable development deal on Watson Island.

And the city of Miami, tellingly — and it is hoped, futilely — is battling just as hard to keep the information secret.

The case is in court.

In Tallahassee, lawmakers are failing miserably to set a better example of their commitment to transparency, a principle that long has set Florida apart, and above, its more-secretive counterparts across the country.

According to the First Amendment Foundation, the 2014 Legislature passed a record number of open-government exemptions. This year, lawmakers seem hellbent on breaking that record. Simply put, they want to keep their constituents in the dark, essentially weakening Floridians’ power to hold elected officials accountable for how they conduct the people’s business, in addition to how they allow other public servants to do the same thing.

Among the worst of the initiatives, Senate Bill 248, would create an overreaching public-records-law exemption for body-camera videos. Despite growing public concern nationally regarding the use of excessive force by law-enforcement officers, this bill would exempt those recordings taken inside of a private residence; at a healthcare, mental-health or social-services facility; at the scene of a medical emergency involving death or an injury requiring transport; and in a place where a person recorded or depicted in the recording has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

This regressive initiative would blot out from public scrutiny, first and foremost, the very real horrors of excessive force by police that have gone viral in the past months.

Many revealing videos of what looks for all the world like police brutality have been recorded by bystanders. But, as the First Amendment Foundation asks: “Doesn’t every use of excessive force involve a medical emergency?”

Any body-cam video would be out of bounds to the public. Law-enforcement agencies would be able to disclose the video in the interest of “official duties and responsibilities,” but the public and the media would have to get a court order, costly for the media, costly and intimidating for ordinary Floridians. Plus, a judge would have to specifically consider eight issues, including whether disclosure might harm “the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person depicted in the recording.”

The Legislature should be more concerned with ensuring that law-enforcement agencies are publicly accountable for upholding the reputation and the integrity of the officers, agents and troopers who wield such tremendous power in our lives.

Lawmakers should be committed to ensuring, too, that the safety of the public, often in the hands of the “person depicted,” takes precedence.

There’s a reason public access to body-cam videos is important — to just about everyone. Municipalities across the country have found that the recordings can shield them from baseless lawsuits, a waste of money to defend; protect officers from being falsely accused and, of course, protect the public from — or reveal — possible police misconduct.

This legislation is overly broad and thwarts the very intent of body cameras. It should not make it out of the Senate alive.