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Fight Over Body Cam Footage Begun in Florida

March 10, 2015  | 

As more police departments equip their officers with body-worn cameras, the question of who gets access to that footage—and at what cost—is fast becoming a new frontier in open-records policy, reports the Columbia Journalism Review.

In Florida, with one of the strongest public-records laws in the country, that frontier may soon be shaped by a couple of factors. One is a lawsuit filed by a Sarasota attorney against the local police department over fees for release of video footage. The second is a bill in the state legislature that would create new exemptions in the public records law when it comes to body cameras.

The lawsuit was filed by Michael Barfield, vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who asked the Sarasota (Fla.) Police Department for the 84 hours of video recorded by officers wearing body cameras during a test of the equipment last year. Though some states grant police broad discretion over when to release video, the Sarasota department recognizes the footage is subject to disclosure under Florida’s records law.

But local officials told Barfield he would have to pay $18,000 for DVD copies of the recordings. As the Sarasota Herald Tribune noted, that amounts to $190 per hour of video. The charge includes $5 for each DVD, far more than blank DVDs cost. But the real cost is in the 458 hours the police department estimates it will take to review the videos and redact anything that might be exempt from the records request—an estimate that works out to more than five hours of time for each hour of footage. Barfield decided to sue.

Meanwhile, a bill currently making its way through the Florida Senate addresses those privacy issues, exempting from the public records law body-cam footage shot inside a private home, as well as anything shot inside a school or hospital or during a medical emergency. The bill also allows someone who is videotaped to get access to the footage.

Comments (1)

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Ima Leprechaun @ 3/16/2015 1:35 AM

Back when video tape was first being used for bookings and in cruisers the courts ruled that anything on that entire VHS tape or tapes can be used by the defense. Any recording is subject to "discovery" (audio/video personal or private use devices). Many agencies found out the hard way when they used a single VHS tape for multiple events or an entire shift that anything on that tape can be used to discredit any part of the evidence even if it had nothing to do with the arrest in question. A tape that contained more than one event or unintended audio or video moments could be used to discredit or embarrass the arresting officers or agency. The defense could use any out of sequence video time code to discredit an entire arrest tape as proof it had been edited and was not a true representation of the facts. Tainted evidence such as this could destroy an entire case. Many Officers were caught on tape talking about other officers or supervisors in a derogatory manner. Some were seriously humiliated by leaving the remote body mic on while using the bathroom. These kind of mistakes will be a huge problem with digital body cameras as well. The cost of any reproduction of the original tape was up to each agency but it had to be a reasonable amount based upon product cost and not labor. Any recording device used by the Officer or the Agency is subject to "discovery" just the same as case notes. Body cameras are a serious double edged sword with as many cons as pros.

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