BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Across the state, law enforcement agencies are adding body cameras to their arsenal of tools. While generally supported by both department heads and city leaders, the move is sparking a new debate over who gets to watch the video.
With more and more cameras hitting the streets, many are worried that a tool meant to add transparency could wind up invading someone's privacy, even possibly exposing crime victims or juveniles to the public.
To address the concern, Senator Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, proposed a new bill that would exempt body camera video from Louisiana public records law.
Under Senate Bill 398, video not subject to a pending criminal proceeding could only be released by a court order. The person requesting the video would also be responsible for covering the costs of "production associated with court ordered disclosure of 11 noncriminal video or audio recordings, including but not limited to expert 12 retention and overtime."
"We think body cameras are going to be a great tool for the public, but it's also going to be a great tool for the law enforcement community. So, we're just trying to find some balance between the two in terms of privacy," Johns said.
The bill has found support from Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie, who said he and several other agencies believe it protects citizens' right to privacy.
However, others are concerned the issue has not been fully discussed.
"Understanding where the senator is coming from, I just think it's premature at this point," said attorney Franz Borghardt.
Borghardt is the chair of the Louisiana Law Enforcement Body Camera Implementation Task Force. The legislature established the group last year to study the body camera issue and make recommendations on best practices and policies. The group is made up of various stakeholders including law enforcement, lawyers, civil rights advocates and even media representatives.
Borghardt said the task force has not had the opportunity to discuss privacy concerns or make any recommendations. While the attorney admits the task force could end up agreeing with SB 398, he would like the chance to explore it before lawmakers decide.
The next task force meeting is tentatively set for early May.
"Civil rights groups want these devices, attorneys want these devices, everyone wants them. But if we just start carving away at the public records law or if we start carving away at things too quickly, I think it's just going to start befuddling the water a bit," Borghardt said.
Borghardt believes that under the current public records law, body camera footage could be treated much like dash cam video. He also points out that the Louisiana Public Records Law does have some privacy protections in place.
For example, a provision allows a private citizen can ask the court to seal records if they believe the publication violates their privacy.
Johns said there is an urgency to establish policies on privacy because many agencies are ready to launch their body camera programs. He said waiting would delay any legislation another year.
The bill goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.