by Nashwa Gewaily, Fellow at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
On the evening of March 27, an apparent shootout left a police officer critically wounded and a man dead on the streets of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. As word of the incident spread, divergent narratives emerged and questions abounded across social media and news sites. In the aftermath, the Boston Police Department and its commissioner were widely praised in traditional media outlets for quickly sharing with select community figures an unbiased account of what had transpired: video footage from a nearby business that captured critical moments of the encounter.
In the wake of a number of high-profile fatal police encounters, followed by community outrage and mass demonstrations, one could easily anticipate the heavy cloud of tension over Boston had nothing been produced to clear the air. This incident is one of tragic many that reveal the benefits of capturing police encounters on video.
Yet, it comes at a time when states are scrambling to make it much more difficult for police incident footage – specifically, police encounters recorded by body-worn cameras – to see the light of day. Citing privacy concerns, legislators in at least 15 states have introduced bills that would exempt from public records law or otherwise limit the disclosure of police-civilian encounter footage obtained from body cameras. While there is certainly an obvious need to protect the privacy of anyone videotaped by police, the over breadth of many of the proposed rules only serve to undermine the transparency that is sorely needed to bring accountability to police departments.