Over the past decade, use of body-worn cameras has become increasingly common among law enforcement agencies across the country and around the tri-states. While City of Dubuque and Dubuque County law enforcement officials have been cooperative with Telegraph Herald requests for camera footage of specific incidents, that has not been the case statewide.
The TH joined the Iowa Newspaper Association and more than 50 Iowa newspaper reporters to query more than 300 law enforcement agencies and review their policies on body cameras and in-car dash cameras, as well as associated video. Collectively, the group reviewed more than 200 policies, which revealed broad inconsistencies, including that about half did not acknowledge police video as a public record.
It’s time Iowa lawmakers set a statewide policy governing the handling of body-camera video.
As it stands now, the rules covering body cameras vary widely from county to county. When cameras were first put into operation, they were touted as, in addition to aiding law enforcement, a way to hold officers accountable. But the vast disparities in policy make it difficult for everyday Iowans to get answers about issues of police behavior by reviewing police video.
About half of the Iowa police policies reviewed identified video as a public record, either by mentioning Iowa Code Chapter 22 or stating media would be allowed to view video in at least some circumstances. But many chiefs and sheriffs have declined to release video, even in closed cases and even when the person shown in the video wants it to be made public.
It would seem video of the event would qualify as the “immediate facts and circumstances” of an event, as the language in Chapter 22 on open records requires to be accessible to the public.
Having more and more law enforcement officers equipped with body-worn cameras is an overall benefit for everyone — except suspects (or, in rare cases, police) breaking the law. The cameras not only help document incidents, but they might also help diffuse an incident or act as a deterrent to keep an incident from even occurring. A belligerent citizen just might back off or tone it down, before a bad situation is made worse, if he or she knows that the scene is being recorded. Likewise, a police officer might think twice before using force — from pepper spray to physical action to even lethal force — when the officer’s camera is switched on.
But, like any tool, cameras have their limitations. Clearly stated laws, favoring openness and transparency, will enhance accountability and public trust in the technology and the officers using it.
This Sunshine Week, Iowa lawmakers should pledge to revisit the state’s open records law to create strong and clear policy around the use of body-worn cameras, as well as the retention and sharing of the video data the cameras record. To use these valuable tools for the good of law enforcement and citizens, a uniform approach is critical.