LANSING, Mich. (WZZM) – A House bill that would exempt police body camera video from being released to the public under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act is raising red flags among some attorneys and civil libertarians.
The proposal by Sen. Rick Jones would amend Michigan's 1976 Freedom of Information Act by keeping police body camera audio and video shielded from public disclosure.
If passed as written, the 30-word addendum to Michigan's 39-year-old transparency law would only heighten public mistrust of law enforcement, says Miriam Aukerman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
"I think if this bill becomes law, the public will be very upset to find that they don't have access to the kind of videos that we've come to expect to be released,'' she said from her Eastown office. "The reason to have body cameras is to promote transparency and accountability for the police, to deter police misconduct and to protect the police from false accusations.''
Jones, a former Eaton County sheriff with 31 years of law enforcement experience, wants to assuage those fears.
"This is a first step and it will be tweaked,'' he said. "All of the police I have talked with believe that there are many times that private moments are filmed and it's not the sort of thing you want somebody to FOIA and then put on the Internet for entertainment, for people to laugh at.''
The bill is modeled after a law passed in South Carolina six months ago that exempts body camera video from being subject to that state's open records laws. Jones says his measure will not be as restrictive.
"I see it as a first draft,'' he said. "My intent is to continue working on it with the ACLU, with the Michigan State Police and other groups to allow anything, where the public should see it, to be available.''
Both sides agree that some video recorded by police body cameras shouldn't be in the public domain.
"If the police are sitting in their squad car talking to one another about their personal matters – that doesn't need to be on YouTube,'' Aukerman said. "If police go to someone's home and tell them your child has died or your child's been in an accident, that doesn't need to be out in the public.''
That concern was addressed with legislation introduced in February by state Rep. Jim Runestad.
The republican lawmaker from Oakland County calls his bill the "law enforcement body-worn camera privacy act.'' Under the bill, body camera video of a 'private place' such as a person's home would be exempt from public disclosure. The measure is pending before the House Judiciary Committee.
The same day Runestad introduced his bill, state Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, introduced legislation that would require all Michigan police to wear body cameras. That measure is now before the House Committee on Criminal Justice.
More than three dozen police agencies in Michigan, including Grand Rapids, are using or plan to equip officers with body cameras.
But it is not universally accepted. Several members of the Michigan Sheriff's Association say a push for body cameras is an unfunded mandate and a knee-jerk reaction to what transpired in Ferguson, Missouri, in Aug. 2014.
Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky in July announced plans to equip the city's nearly 300 uniformed officers with body cameras. It is part of a 12-step Community and Police Relations plan unveiled earlier this year.
"The reason to have body cameras is to promote transparency and accountability for the police, to deter police misconduct and to protect the police from false accusations,'' Aukerman said. "We need to protect privacy and we need to have transparency. We can and must do both.''