A Tulsa lawmaker has proposed legislation that would subject Oklahoma law enforcement officers to potential criminal charges for improperly using body-worn cameras.
State Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, filed a measure that would mandate every law enforcement agency that supplies the devices “require the use of said body-worn equipment at all times while interacting with the public,” according to House Bill 3515.
The bill would make it unlawful for law enforcement to modify or alter recordings or use devices in a manner to obstruct justice. If passed, the law would go into effect Nov. 1.
“... No officer employed by a law enforcement agency in this state shall edit, redact, erase, copy, share or otherwise alter or distribute in any manner any recording made by the body-worn recording equipment or the data from such recording,” the bill states. “It shall be unlawful for a law enforcement officer with the intent to obstruct justice, to fail to turn on, to disable, to turn off or operate body-worn recording equipment in any manner that prevents the creation of evidence.”
The bill says law enforcement found in violation could face misdemeanor charges.
Goodwin maintains her bill wasn’t written as a means to indiscriminately punish law enforcement officers without justifiable cause. The measure, she says, was proposed with the intention of holding law enforcement agencies accountable for actions that would compromise public trust.
“We’re talking about for the officers who are going to be obstructing justice or for the officers who feel it is OK to go out in the field without their body-cams,” Goodwin said. “There should be consequences that are in actions and not just on paper.”
The Tulsa Police Department, for example, states in its policy that officers equipped with cameras are expected to record all enforcement actions and “circumstances where a citizen expressly wishes to report misconduct.”
Other than in the event of “an extreme, dynamic situation” where the devices cannot be triggered because of officer safety risks, all recordings shall begin “as soon as practical and reasonable,” the policy states.
The police department’s policy outlines that any tampering or obstruction with the intention of disabling recording devices is prohibited, and failure to use them as prescribed can result in disciplinary action.
Goodwin, though, said she hasn’t been privy to any punishments levied against officers accused by citizens of circumventing body camera policies by withholding or significantly delaying access to recordings.
“It has already been proven that body cameras help both citizens and police,” she said. “For all the folks who want to do right and be fair, we want our police officers and our public to be seen and shown in the truest light.”
Police officials say an estimated 100 video recordings a month require review, and it can be a tedious, time-consuming process.
The operation involves a lengthy inspection and documentation of each video. It can often take one full day to completely review and process content of a single recording.
Tulsa Police Lt. Shane Tuell said officers’ proper use of body cameras is considered a “top priority” within the department, because the devices are beneficial in protecting police and the public from misperceptions.
“We are not out to make people feel bad or look bad,” Tuell said. “We want to do things that encourage law enforcement to use body cameras. We want to encourage more agencies to use them.”