Recap: NEFAC’s Panel Discussion on Conn. FOI Law, Police Body Cameras

By Amanda Palmeira

palmeiraThe New England First Amendment Coalition recently hosted a panel discussion on Connecticut’s public records law and the use of body cameras by law enforcement. It highlighted the often contentious balancing of privacy and transparency interests.

Titled “Caught on Camera: The FOI Fallout from Police Cameras,” the April 8 discussion was part of the Making CONNections journalism conference at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Conn. A video of the conversation can be viewed here. Program materials can be found here. You can also read previous NEFAC blog posts on various police camera FOI bills and legislative best practices.

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Video Courtesy Connecticut Network

The panel focused on a Connecticut law that requires state police departments to equip officers with cameras and restricts when officers can record and release the camera footage.

Panelists included Leonard Boyle, the deputy chief state’s attorney for Connecticut and former director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center in Washington D.C.; Christopher Davis, Manchester Police captain and public information officer; Anthony Gaunichaux, the Middlesex County NAACP first vice president; and Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut FOI Commission and frequent lecturer at NEFAC’s annual New England First Amendment InstituteJim Smith, a NEFAC board member and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, moderated the discussion.

Murphy explained that the Connecticut law was enacted partly as a response to the Sandy Hook shooting, which made residents aware of the photographic and video records police generate during an investigation. Twenty elementary school students and six adults were killed in the 2012 shooting, igniting a debate over whether or not the public should have access to images captured at the crime scene. 

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Panelists discussing police body cameras and FOI legislation. Photo courtesy Vern Williams, assistant professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.

The shooting “certainly changed Connecticut, and it changed the way legislatures look at what kind of information is released in crimes,” Smith said.

Most of the discussion focused on the general pros and cons of law enforcement use of body cameras, including the public’s ability to monitor police actions — another goal of those who drafted the Connecticut law, Murphy said.

Gaunichaux called police body cameras a “third eye” and explained that they can be life-saving devices.

“The cameras on the street help,” he said. “Even though we might have a bad policeman, there’s always good policemen too. I think that the cameras are the best thing that ever happened for the good cop, and it catches the bad cop. It helps us as a group and as citizens in this country.”

Boyle also cited the benefits of police body cameras.

“There’s no doubt that the criminal justice system functions at its best at times when the public has the highest degree of faith and trust in people in the system,” Boyle said.

Noting that many factors in recent years have made people question the fairness of the criminal justice system, Boyle suggested that use of police body cameras can help restore the public’s faith. It’s “undoubtedly a good thing,” he said. 

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Moderator Jim Smith, a NEFAC board member. Photo courtesy Vern Williams, assistant professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.

Boyle cautioned, however, that body cameras will not completely solve the problem of police misconduct.

“It’s not a panacea,” he said. “It’s not going to solve the problems that we have involving the police and the community relationship — that’s going to be more a function of individual police officers working with people in their communities, gaining their trust through things other than video cameras. But to the extent that it will help the public to understand what police officers do, to understand the stresses they face, and to evaluate their conduct, I think it’s a good thing.”

Davis also advocated for more police body cameras but warned against “rushed legislation that will appease the public, initially, but really not put a great deal of thought into how this will actually play out.”

He explained that there are certain situations that the current Connecticut law does not take into consideration, such as domestic disputes that will involve police officers with body cameras entering private residences. While police are able to “gloss over” unnecessary and highly personal details when writing a police report, the law provides no guidance on when a police officer could stop recording with a body camera, he said.

“In general, I think law enforcement is very supportive of the trend going to body cameras, and within a few years, I’m sure they’ll be the industry standard,” Davis said. “But there just needs to be some more thought and some safeguards put into place to make sure that everything that’s recorded should be put out into the public view.”

During the program, the panelists played two police body camera recordings. The first involved a disturbed 42-year-old New Hampshire man who had stabbed himself and was resisting police while holding a knife. The police shot the man, though the footage had been edited to include only the scenes up to but not including the shooting and the officer interactions afterward. The second video depicted a 24-year-old Arizona police officer who was responding to a domestic disturbance. The officer questioned the boyfriend involved in the disturbance, and when the officer asked to pat down the man’s pockets, the man fatally shot the officer.

Responding to the videos, Boyle noted the uncertainties of disclosure: “Strikes me that, once [this footage] exist[s], now the question is what can the police do with them? What must police do with them, as far as preserving them, disclosing them, to anybody? Because remember, if they’re subject to Freedom of Information, they’re subject to anybody’s request.” 

Murphy said a balance must be struck.

“As difficult as those images are, and I still have a little feeling in the pit in my stomach over that, do we believe that there’s value to those images being shared with the public? Some are easier than others to make the call. There are so many different scenarios that can occur,” Murphy said. “But to make these things available, I think there is an important public policy to hold law enforcement accountable.”

Murphy pointed out that, nationally, most public records laws governing police body cameras have a private residence exception. She said the Connecticut law has multiple exemptions and makes footage public “except to the extent that disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” a policy intending to protect the privacy of the families of those killed at Sandy Hook.

Amanda is a second-year law student at New England Law | Boston and was a summer intern for NEFAC. She can be emailed at amanda.palmeira@nesl.edu.

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NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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