Body Cameras

Pennsylvania Senate Advances Bill That Would Block Access to Police Body Cam Videos

A bad state bill would simultaneously decrease police accountability and let them film wherever they want.


Elizabeth Flores/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The Pennsylvania state senate passed a bill on Wednesday to expand police use of body-worn cameras, but the bill would also block practically all body cam footage from public records requests.

The bill, which now heads to the state house, would amend the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act to allow police to wear body-worn cameras inside homes, as well as public spaces. However, the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics say it would also make it practically impossible for media outlets and individuals to obtain body cam footage, in addition to weakening privacy protections for citizens in their homes.

If the bill passes, Pennsylvania would become the seventh state to neuter a promising police accountability tool. North Carolina enacted a law in July exempting body cam footage from public records requests. Five other states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, and South Carolina—also exempt police body cam videos under freedom of information laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:

The bill would require anyone seeking access to data from body cameras to identify every person in the video before the video had been viewed. It would also give law enforcement the ability to deny the request if the information being sought was part of an active investigation. If requesters appeal, they would have to pay $250 filing fees.

Aaron Zappia, a spokesman for [state senator Stewart] Greenleaf, said in an interview Wednesday that such protections were built into the legislation because "the primary purpose of body cameras is to gather evidence."

"These are evidence-gathering tools," he said. "Evidence is sensitive information, and people's identities may need to be protected in some cases."

In a letter to the state senate expressing its opposition to the bill, the Pennsylvania ACLU legislative director Andy Hoover says that while "victims of and witnesses to crime need protection," the current bill goes too far and "creates a byzantine process to request data from police cameras."

"In practice, under this bill, the public will rarely, if ever, see video produced by police departments that shows misconduct by officers." Hoover writes.

Meanwhile, the bill will also removes a prohibition on officers filming inside private residences, allowing police to film inside homes under any circumstances. It also does not mandate when officers must turn their body cams on or off, or how long footage may be stored—two fundamental issues in how body cams are used by police departments.

What the Pennsylvania senate appears to be missing is the fact that police body cams are far more than evidence-gathering tools. They are, first and foremost, accountability tools. The national push for body cams in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police was premised on the notion that the public would be able to see what happened in controversial police interactions.

As Adam Marshall, an attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in an interview with Reason earlier this year: "The whole reason we have these body cam programs is because there was a lack of reliable information about what happens between law enforcement and the public. If you cut off access to the public, you're undercutting the entire rationale for this new technology. If there's no public access to these videos, they just become another surveillance and investigative tool for police, instead of providing the oversight everyone believed they were being instituted to provide."

There are thorny questions about how to balance privacy rights of those filmed on police body cams. In Washington, D.C. for example, the Metropolitan Police Department goes through the laborious process of fuzzing out the faces of citizens who appear in body cam footage. The patchwork of state laws that have emerged following the rapid roll-out of police body cam technology have resulted in, at best, some thoughtful but complicated polices, and at worst, policies that betray the purpose behind much of the push for body cams. Pennsylvania legislators seem intent on joining the latter group.

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  1. PA govt will try everything before doing the right thing.

    1. Wait, you mean doing the right thing is even on the list? That puts them in like the top 10% of states

      1. If you wait long enough (and measure time on the geologic scale).

        1. My Co-Worker’s step-sister made $14500 the previous week. She gets paid on the laptop and moved in a $557000 condo. All she did was get blessed and apply the guide leaked on this web site. Go to this web site and click tech tab to start your work.. Go now… http://www.ImdbCash.TK

      2. I have seen reports from PA newspapers about DAs charging police with crimes for breaking laws.

        1. No conviction, only a plea deal.

  2. Kind of on topic: The PSP have had a high number of “accidental discharges” with their service pistols that resulted in the some deaths, including a pregnant wife of a trooper and a trooper who was killed while at the academy.

    I don’t think they are the best of the best, and most likely make a mistake or two while out on patrol.

      1. They used Glocks but had a number of discharges they blamed on the Glocks, so they switched to Sigs, and while a trooper was at the academy learning how to use the Sig he was shot and killed by the firearms instructor. It’s crazy

        1. Come on, give them a chance. Someone probably thought they saw some toddlers in the vicinity and the officers shit their pants and fired their gun on accident. It’s ok though, Hillary is going to start the war on gun toting toddlers. They’re more dangerous than those creepy clowns.

  3. What the Pennsylvania senate appears to be missing is the fact that police body cams are far more than evidence-gathering tools. They are, first and foremost, accountability tools.


    For a long time, and this still might be true, Pennsylvania prohibited local cops from using radar in speed enforcement. A few state senate Republicans thought the local police would abuse radar and use speed enforcement as an excuse to fill local coffers.

    1. This is still true. It almost changed recently, though. For the longest time the state police have backed the measures that made it so that only they could have radar guns, but they switched their stance recently and the legislature almost changed the laws so that locals could use them as well. Fortunately, inertia won out in the end and the law remained unchanged.

      1. Interesting.

        I should have known that the state police were involved too.

      2. Those “state police” that wear those laughable, insidious “campaign hats”?

        When thinking about giving “radar guns” to local cops, always think Piperton, Tennessee. That gaggle of sick misfits is the epitome of why we don’t give voting rights to carp or sloths.

    2. If you click on the link, you’ll see that not only did the PA Senate pass the awful bill discussed above,they also passed legislation allowing local cops to use radar.

      1. Read linked articles? The horror!

  4. The only evidence gathering tool is the cop wearing the camera.

  5. “In practice, under this bill, the public will rarely, if ever, see video produced by police departments that shows misconduct by officers.”

    Feature, not bug.

  6. Once again, our full-time-but-should-be-part-time legislature nails it.

  7. OT: I work for a judge in Montana. He is currently under severe fire for his sentencing decision in an incest case; the perp admitted to raping his daughter. The prosecution originally brought three counts of incest against the man; they later got him to agree to plead guilty to one count. The Judge, who I strongly believe is an honorable man who really respects due process, gave the man a 30-year suspended sentence.

    One of the Judge’s reasons for this “light sentence” is that the mandatory minimum statute allows for a lesser sentence when an expert testifies that the offender is a low risk for reoffending. That happened here; prosecution offered no rebuttal evidence. The judge also considered the several state sentencing policies that included rehabilitation, safety for the victim and community, and punishment of the offender. He thought his sentence best served those. Additionally, the victim’s mother and maternal grandmother didn’t want the perp to see prison time. The Judge asked for a victim impact statement, but none was offered.

    Now tens of thousands of people across the country are calling for his impeachment. They’ve gotten extremely vicious about this. I’m feeling overwhelmed; I can’t even imagine how the Judge feels.

    This whole election season is hell. And fuck the media’s coverage of this.

    Look up “Judge John McKeon.” I kind of wish Reason would offer a thoughtful look and analysis of this, especially from a legal perspective.

    1. The USA needs keep prisons and jails full. This keeps police/guard unions happy because of jobs and overtime potential. This is the narrative that needs to be followed!

      Judges do not have unions to protect them and most people never sit through one day of court in their local area to see how well or bad their local judges do. There are quite a few bad judges that I have seen in my career and nothing ever happens to them. Judges are almost always licensed lawyers, so that explains why they have almost zero accountability.

      Bottom line: the criminal justice system and civil court system are broken and The People know something is wrong but don’t know exactly what or want to spend the energy to fix the problems. The media brings the sensational stories and The People go on the publicity rampage.

  8. It’s been pointed out on HnR before, but worth repeating. If you just step back and look, it’s obvious that the police control the politicians. Got that. The police are running things. Try not to think about it, it’s too ennervating.

    1. How is Maine compared to New Hampshire? I’d like to get a little vacation spot away from Transylvania.

  9. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


  10. Okay, so I expect that states passing such laws will no longer express their dismay when people engage in blanket mistrust of police rather than the “few bad apples” analogy the police have been claiming. I mean, if we don’t get to see such videos to identify the bad apples from the rest, we’d be right to assume that all cops are corrupt and criminals.

    Seems odd that for all the “cops are great” rhetoric yet these are the same people that oppose any efforts toward transparency or attempts to be held accountable.

  11. Think of it as being like the Black Codes and the Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War. The southern states couldn’t prevent the abolition of slavery, but they did do everything in their power to minimize the practical effect of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and to reduce blacks to something as close to the old system of slavery as possible.

    Likewise the police can’t stop the new body camera requirements, but they and the legislators under their thumb can do everything in their power to minimize the practical effect of cops having to wear body cameras and to bring back something as close to the old system of police unaccountability as possible.

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