HARRISBURG, Pa. — Legislation approved by the Pennsylvania state Senate on Wednesday would let police departments across the state refuse public requests for copies of video recordings by officers, unless a court orders the release.
The bill sets a sweeping policy to exempt recordings from body cameras and dashboard cameras from public records requests in Pennsylvania.
The Senate approved the bill, 45-5, without debate on wording made public the previous day. It goes to the House of Representatives with just five scheduled voting days left in the legislative session that ends Nov. 30, after which all bills die.
It is supported by law enforcement organizations, including the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, but opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the bill would make it nearly impossible to obtain video that is in the public interest, even if the requester is in the video. The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association also opposes the bill.
It was not clear Wednesday how many police departments outfit officers with body cameras or dashboard cameras in Pennsylvania, but the bill’s sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said passing the bill will encourage more police agencies to do so.
The agencies, Greenleaf said, will not employ video cameras if they fear expensive and time-consuming public records requests that require hours spent copying video and redacting sensitive images.
“The major issue here is we want body cams, and we’re not going to get it if the townships, the police chiefs, are going to oppose it,” Greenleaf said.
The bill also clarifies that officers can gather body camera footage inside a private residence while on duty, in an effort to address police department concerns about violating the state’s surveillance law.
The bill does not address when a police camera must be turned on and how long data must be stored before it is erased, and Greenleaf said those issues will have to wait until next year.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office did not endorse the bill. In a two-sentence statement, the office said it continues to work on the bill with the Legislature. A spokesman for House Majority Leader David Reed, R-Indiana, said the chamber will review it.
The ACLU agreed that some police video should be shielded from public view, noting that crime victims and witnesses need protection. But it also pointed to hurdles the public would face under the bill in obtaining video, including a “byzantine” process to request it.
“In practice, under this bill, the public will rarely, if ever, see video produced by police departments that shows misconduct by officers,” the ACLU said in a two-page memo to senators.
Under the bill, someone seeking a copy of police video would have 14 days after it was recorded to request it under the state’s Right to Know Law. The request must identify the incident, date, time and location, as well as identify or describe each individual present.
It is grounds for a denial if the county district attorney or state attorney general certifies that the recording is part of an investigation.
A judge could not overrule a prosecutor’s certification, and would have to weigh other factors in deciding whether to order its full or partial release.
“At no point in this process is the agency that holds the data or the court required to release the record,” the ACLU said.