The people's voice of reason

A bill to make body cam footage public record was defeated in a Senate committee

On Wednesday, April 17, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee voted to reject legislation that would have made police body cam and dash cam video public.

SB14 would have made both bodycam and dash cam video a matter of public record. It would require any law enforcement agency, sheriff or police department to release the footage within 30 days of a request to view it.

According to the synopsis, "Under existing law, a recording made by a body-worn camera or dashboard camera used by law enforcement agencies may only be disclosed to an individual or a personal representative of an individual whose image or voice is the subject of the recording. This bill would allow a recording made by a body-worn camera or dashboard camera used by law enforcement to be considered a public record, making the recording subject to public inspection."

Coleman said that this issue was brought to her attention at a meeting of the Poor People's Campaign. Coleman was joined by the family of people whose loved ones were impacted negatively in an encounter with law enforcement.

The Legislature passed a bill last year to allow the family of a person killed in an incident with police or a person involved in an incident with police to see the video.

Coleman said that last year's law become an "impediment in trying to get access."

"This piece of legislation is not an indictment of law enforcement; but what it does is allow body cam footage to become public record in thirty days," Coleman explained. "The press has an opportunity to view it. The public has an opportunity to view it."

"In Tuscaloosa there was a situation where a young man was being pursued by the police and he passed away," said Coleman. In that case "Representative Chris England by sharing the video was able to show that the young man passed away as a result of a heart attack."

Coleman said that openness avoids the rumors that occur when the public does not see what happens.

"I would ask the committee to give it a favorable report," Coleman concluded.

Sen. Lance Bell (R-Springville) said that as a criminal defense attorney he can think of several cases he has been involved in where if the cam footage became public that it would hurt the defense.

"There is many times where I would not want that," Bell said. "It will hurt me in my defense."

"I am a lawyer as well," Coleman said. "I do some criminal defense work."

"On this one I just can't do it," Bell said.

Coleman said that she had prefiled this bill before the session and went to the media to make it public that this was coming.

"I haven't heard from one person (with problems with the bill)," Coleman said.

"I am just thinking about cases I am involved with now," Bell said. "It would hurt me. I didn't want it released."

Bell argued that the body cam footage being in the media and social media prior to the trial would prejudice potential juries.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) said, "I am going to vote to get it out of committee; but he (Bell) is right about that part."

"Even your defense strategy changes," Smitherman said. "I do see problems with that. To release it out to the world? No, there is no way you are going to get a fair trial."

"It does have some problems from that standpoint and I have been a practicing defense attorney for forty years, I have also been a prosecutor," said Smitherman.

Smitherman also objected to Coleman's complaint that nobody had come to her with an objection before now.

"We deal with two or three thousands bills," Smitherman said. My personal question is when I saw this today and read this bill today I saw what is in there. Prior to that I did not know anything about the thirty days." "I am going to vote to get it out of committee, but before it goes to the floor those things are going to have to be addressed."

The bill is being opposed by some district attorneys and some members of law enforcement – though they did not request a public hearing.

"When it comes to the DAs association and law enforcement this has been out there for months," Coleman said.

Coleman said that Senators should bring amendments to work on her bill rather than just killing it.

"Help me shape something instead of saying that we just can't do it," Coleman said.

Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) is the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"My concerns are the same as those raised by Senators Smitherman and Bell," Barfoot said. "You hamper an investigation, you hamper the defense as was so eloquently stated by both lawyers. You also victimize the victims."

"Current law allows the family to see the video," Barfoot said. "I was supportive of that last year and I think that was a pretty good piece of legislation."

"Some district attorneys are actually using the piece of legislation we passed to keep from releasing the body cam footage released," Coleman claimed.

"I intend to vote for it," said Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur).

"I looked at the bill for the first time last night," said Bell. "That is why I didn't come to you earlier."

Smitherman warned that there would be unintended consequences with the bill as is.

"I do have some concerns based on some recent conversations that I have had with victims in my district," said Sen. April Weaver (R-Briarfield).

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) brought a amendment to the bill.

"I am trying to address the concern that Senator Bell and Smitherman had," Coleman-Madison said.

"I realize this is last minute, but before the session when we talked with LSA any Hand written amendments were strongly discouraged," said Chairman Barfoot. "Being in LSA format on the floor that would be helpful."

"It would be considered an unfriendly amendment," said Coleman rejected Coleman-Madison's compromise after reading it.

"Hold off on the amendment because it would be seen as unfriendly by the sponsor and for me because it is handwritten," Barfoot said,

"My major concern is that the family have access to the body cam," said Coleman. "My purpose is that if you make it public, you can stop a lot of the rumors. I would appeal to the committee that if we can just get the bill out of committee, I will work with you before it gets to the floor."

Orr made a motion to give the bill a favorable report. That motion was seconded by Coleman-Madison.

The committee voted to reject SB14 on a vote of 4 in favor to 8 opposed.

"I look forward to coming back next year," Coleman said.

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