“Eleventh-hour language” was recently added to a budget bill on the eve of the anniversary of George Floyd’s and Dion Johnson’s deaths. This would potentially give DPS (Department of Public Safety) more leverage on denying public record requests for bodycam footage on state troopers. There is worry from legal advocates and media organizations that the language would lead to transparency around footage from police shootings.
The bill states that the department will deny a request if the request does not include an approximate date and time, the specific location, and the person(s) involved in the recording. This bill is alongside the efforts of funding and equipping state troopers with body cams.
Dan Barr, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said the additions to the bill were insidious efforts to limit access to public records.
“It is for the State to show there is some reason not to disclose some or part of the requested record,” Barr told The Republic. “Here, they’re flipping the public records law on its head and saying it’s up to the requester to prove to the State that there is some important purpose in releasing this record.”
David Bodney, a Phoenix attorney, wrote to the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday morning urging members to oppose the bill if it contains language that exempts DPS from following Arizona Public Records Law. Bodney wrote “the eleventh-hour language promotes secrecy, not openness” and would allow DPS to decide what constitutes an “important public purpose for releasing the video recording.”
Bodney told The Republic that he was informed of the changes to the bill less than 24 hours before the bill was presented to the House Appropriations Committee.
“This last minute was written as if, contrary to the law governing law and every other state and local law enforcement body in Arizona, it has been designed to deny requests and thwart the public’s right to know what DPS officers are up to,” Bodney wrote.
A person being arrested for a misdemeanor or felony that could result in incarceration, one or more police officers using physical force, or an allegation of law enforcement misconduct are all examples of important public purposes that DPS would release the footage for.
“If it doesn’t fall within (that criteria), even if there’s no privacy interest or confidentiality interest, or the state’s best interest is not implicated, it can still withhold the video,” Barr said. “And that’s just wrong.”
Barr also criticized a section of the bill that would allow DPS to determine a price for the records based off of a records custodian’s hourly wage, in addition to costs for reviewing, copying, and redacting videos.
“It would be like you calling the police to your house for a burglary and then the police presented you a bill for their time in doing their job,” Barr said. “And that’s what this is. They’re trying to pass off the cost of doing their jobs to people who make public record requests. We don’t have that in other governmental services.”
Earlier this year there was another bill aimed at DPS body cams when Senator David Gowan introduced an amendment to House Bill 2461 that prohibited DPS from disclosing video unless it “involves a criminal act”. Gowan hoped to protect people’s privacy with this amendment and referred to it as a “civil liberties situation”.
Several other lawmakers were worried this amendment would actually limit public transparency. The amended bill did not proceed further after being passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
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