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Body Worn Video Steering Group

Body Camera Legislation: An “Equal Distribution of Unhappiness”

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OKLAHOMA CITY — State lawmakers are working on a measure that will determine how much access the public has to videos from body cameras worn by law enforcement officers.

House Bill 1037 is expected to be heard this week in the state Senate after securing approval in the Senate Rules Committee, and following similar body camera legislation in other states.

If it secures passage in the Senate, the measure will be assigned to a conference committee where the final details will be worked out, said Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, the Senate sponsor.

Holt and Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, have been working with the media, law enforcement and prosecutors to find a compromise.

Holt is the author of a measure that passed last year to open the dash camera recordings of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The measure contained exceptions for all of law enforcement, including nudity and dead bodies.

Holt said that last year lawmakers didn’t give much consideration to how the measure would apply to body cameras because the focus was on dash cameras.

Recent high-profile cases involving police shootings brought body cameras back into the national discussion, Holt said. So Oklahoma lawmakers decided to take another look at the issue, he said.

“Dash cameras capture events happening on the side of the road in public,” Holt said. “The expectation of privacy is pretty low.”

Body cameras, however, capture the very sensitive aspects of a criminal investigation, such as a confidential informant speaking to law enforcement, he said. They also capture the appearance of domestic violence victims, he said.

“First of all, they are pointed at us, not at officers,” Holt said.

Sen. David Holt

The bill currently makes private body camera recordings that depict great bodily injury, medical information that is not public, death, minors, nudity and other circumstances.

“It is trying to find a balance between the needs of transparency, privacy, law enforcement and criminal prosecution,” said Mark Thomas, Oklahoma Press Association executive vice president. “I think everyone has given up a little bit. We may have achieved what I call equal distribution of unhappiness. That means it is probably a pretty fair piece of legislation.”

Trent Baggett, Oklahoma District Attorneys Council assistant executive coordinator, said the measure is an improvement over current law. He said there is a misperception that law enforcement and prosecutors are trying to hide things.

“I think one of the overriding things district attorneys are concerned about is the premature release of a video because district attorneys are concerned with the right of an accused to have a fair trial and the right of the state of Oklahoma to have a fair trial,” Baggett said.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he wanted to ensure that victims, witnesses and investigations were protected. He said the bill addresses his concerns.

Earlier this year, a House panel passed a measure that critics said would gut the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The author of the measure declined to seek a hearing on the House floor.

“I don’t know if I speak for every journalist, but most of us understand that this is new territory and there were going to have to be some restrictions to access to body camera video,” said Alex Cameron, an anchor for KWTV-9 in Oklahoma City and president of FOI Oklahoma. “I think we are getting out in front of it. It seems like the initial legislation was just too restrictive and maybe an overreaction. So, we are grateful and optimistic about what Sen. Holt has put forward.”

Written by Barbara Hoberock for Tulsa World

Barbara.Hoberock@tulsaworld.com

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