House OK’s shielding private police cam video

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Footage from police body cameras taken in private settings would be exempt from open records requests under legislation the House approved Tuesday over objections from the Michigan Press Association and a group representing Michigan police officers.

In a 108-0 vote, the House unanimously approved the bill, which supporters say protects the privacy of Michigan residents and makes sure websites can’t post sensitive information that crime victims don’t want disclosed.

But the press association argues that the legislation could end up shielding footage from open records almost entirely because of the private setting exemption combined with existing disclosure exemptions provided for by the Freedom of Information Act.

“Our attorney says that this closes it off almost completely,” said Lisa McGraw, executive director of the Michigan Press Association. “The only way we could get access to it is to go through the lawyers from one of the victims or one of the victims themselves; someone in the video.”

Police body camera footage can help determine court cases and investigations or shape public opinion about a given interaction between law enforcement and residents just like other information.

But whether some footage should be withheld from public scrutiny in the interest of privacy — such as a video of an elderly woman who fell in the bathtub and received help from emergency first responders to get up — is the central question in a debate over how much video from police bodycams should be made public.

The bill won support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, the Michigan State Police, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

About 50 law enforcement agencies in Michigan currently use bodycams, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis of the bill. That includes state police, Detroit police and the Macomb County Sheriff’s Department.

Videos shot in public settings are still subject to open records requests, says the bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake.

“All of the footage that you would capture of somebody out doing anything in public is all gonna be FOIA-able,” Runestad said. “But you can’t have a situation in the state of Michigan” in which you “fall in your bathroom and they capture you naked on the floor and people want to make a blooper show out of that.”

But opponents such as McGraw say the exemption for private settings and the bill’s data retention requirements could make it hard to learn about specific police-citizen interactions.

She uses the example of someone in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was shot and killed by a police officer in September 2016. The department argued that the man was carrying a gun, although family members asserted he was carrying a book, according to The Charlotte Observer.

The officer has since been exonerated after the department released body camera footage of the incident.

McGraw said she’s concerned videos like that might be excluded from the public record in Michigan if they’re filmed in a private setting.

Robin Luce-Herrmann, the group’s attorney and the Michigan State Bar’s law and media center chairwoman, said videos recorded in public settings like highways or sidewalks could be open to records requests.

Herrmann said she was concerned about a tight time limit for requesting that a department retain video evidence to be disclosed at a later time.

Under the legislation, police departments would keep bodycam footage for at least 30 days if it contains audio and video of an arrest, crime, citation or use of force or confrontation, according to the bill. Footage would be kept for up to three years if a complaint is filed.

Runestad said the time limit was necessary because it would be too expensive for departments to store video footage indefinitely.