Missouri looks to keep video from police body cams away from the public

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Legislation limiting public access to police body camera videos won final approval Tuesday in Missouri, nearly two years after a fatal police shooting in Ferguson spurred massive protests over the way police interact with residents.

The Missouri measure would bar public access to videos from police body and vehicle cameras while investigations are ongoing. And even after a case ends, videos taken at homes, schools, medical facilities and other “nonpublic locations” could remain closed to the general public.

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Some lawmakers said they hope more police will begin using body cameras if the know there are privacy protections.

“If the goal is to get body cameras on police officers on the street, this is how we do it,” said Republican Rep. Kenneth Wilson, a former police chief from suburban Kansas City who sponsored the legislation.

The measure now goes to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has not said whether he will sign it.

Police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson did not have body cameras in August 2014 when officer Darren Wilson encountered Michael Brown walking down a city street shortly after a robbery at a nearby convenience store. The lack of video evidence helped feed doubts and speculation over exactly what transpired before the white officer fatally shot the black 18-year-old.

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Protests turned violent in the days immediately after Brown’s death and again after a state grand jury declined to indict Wilson. A federal investigation also later cleared Wilson of wrongdoing in Brown’s death. Wilson resigned from the police force.

Ferguson began requiring uniformed officers to wear body cameras in September 2014. But a recent Associated Press review of the nation’s 20 largest police departments found that many have been slow to adopt or expand their use of body cameras. Neither St. Louis nor Kansas City, Missouri’s two largest cities, currently requires them.

Many states also have no specific laws guiding public access to body camera videos. But that is changing. In the past two years, 13 states have enacted laws setting standards on whether such videos can be viewed by the public. Those include three states — Indiana, Utah and Washington — that passed measures earlier this year.

“In many instances — probably the instances where there’s the most public clamor for release — the information contained on the video will be evidence,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police. It “could be the kind of information you might not want out there.”

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In arguing for restricted access, police groups and lawmakers have cited scenarios where officers enter a home — perhaps in response to a domestic disturbance call or medical emergency — and have unflattering video of people. They contend nosy neighbors shouldn’t have access to that. They also cite the potential for would-be thieves to access videos displaying people’s personal property and the layout of their homes.

The Missouri measure would allow police videos to be released to people shown in the videos or to their attorneys. But members of the media or general public would have to go to court to get access to videos taken in nonpublic places. Those wanting the videos would face a high legal bar and, if granted access, could not display the videos until first providing those depicted in them a chance at a second round of court proceedings to try to stop them.

The Missouri Press Association did not oppose the legislation, which passed the House 154-1 and the Senate 30-0.

“Privacy is such a big issue with legislators,” said press association lobbyist Doug Crews. “This is about the best we could do on this, quite frankly.”

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