Dear Beacon Hill: What are you thinking?
In a state where access to public information remains so burdened by exemptions to our public records laws, legislators should be actively working to remove them so citizens can see how their government works — or doesn’t. Instead, though, state lawmakers are trying to create even more loopholes.
What else to make of a proposal that would exempt all law enforcement body-worn and dashboard camera recordings from public disclosure? The idea is rightly causing consternation among government watchdogs, and transparency and free-press advocates.
Lest we forget, Massachusetts already ranks among the worst states for public disclosure of government records. Among our most egregious exemptions: We remain the only state that exempts all three branches of state government — the governor’s office, Legislature, and judiciary — from the public records law.
State Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, introduced the police camera measure to maintain “the safety and privacy of victims, minors, witnesses, and bystanders who might be picked up” on the videos, she explained in a Twitter post after a Thursday hearing on her bill. “It wouldn’t shield the video from prosecutors, investigators, courts, or litigants or allow police to ‘black it out’ as some have suggested,” she added.
But there are already mechanisms to protect the privacy of individuals in government records, and to tilt the presumption of video recorded by law enforcement from public to private is a damaging overreach.
At the hearing, Provost said body camera videos “are really meant to be evidence, not public entertainment.” If Provost really thinks entertainment is the only reason citizens might want to see police footage, she evidently does not think too highly of residents. True, police recordings are evidence. But they also hold the potential to be a lot more. Dashcams and body cams are also a tool to build trust between law enforcement and the community — they keep everyone accountable.
Her legislation has attracted strong pushback — as it should.
“This proposal is completely unwarranted and unacceptable because it substantially defeats the purpose of the use of body cameras by public-safety officers,” Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees public records, wrote in a letter to legislators.
As for the privacy concerns, Massachusetts already addresses them in an existing exemption, according to Galvin’s office. Our current law allows for the withholding of sensitive information from law enforcement records, like victims’ or witnesses’ identities, intimate details about private citizens, or documents that could compromise ongoing investigations if disclosed. In other words, footage from police cameras would already be covered by preexisting exceptions in the law.
Provost’s provision is not only redundant, it also sends the wrong message to the public about their right to see how government, including law enforcement agencies, is working. The rest of her legislation, which sets up a commission to develop standards for body camera usage, is unobjectionable. But this state’s sunshine law is already too weak to give you a tan, much less burn away government secrecy. The last thing Beacon Hill should be doing is creating even more loopholes .