CCFOI testimony: SB 431

To make the state’s police accountability policy effective, public access to recordings demands the widest — not narrow – definitions so the information is available to the public. To mandate the purchase and use of cameras, then to expand the conditions under which the recordings are kept secret is antithetical to the accountability purposes of the statute. CCFOI opposes the proposed bill.

See Jeffrey Daniels’ full testimony here and below.

SB 431, AN ACT CONCERNING FEES FOR COPYING, REVIEWING AND REDACTING RECORDS CREATED BY POLICE BODY-WORN RECORDING EQUIPMENT AND DASHBOARD CAMERAS

Government Administration and Elections Committee

March 18, 2024

Good day Sen. Flexer, Rep. Blumenthal, Ranking Members Sampson and Mastrofrancesco, and Honorable Members of the Committee:

My name is Jeffrey Daniels. I am legislative co-chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI). We are a nearly 70-year-old organization comprised of CT news media outlets and advocates of protection of the First Amendment. Our mission is to advocate and promote government transparency, public access, protection of CT’s landmark Freedom of Information Act, and other measures that guarantee the rights of the public and the media and access to government information and practices.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information strongly opposes Senate Bill 431, An Act Concerning Fees for Copying, Reviewing and Redacting Records Created by Police Body-Worn Recording Equipment and Dashboard Cameras.

The proposed legislation has two main parts – both of which strike directly at the public’s right to access information and materials related to a law enforcement action:

  • First, the bill would significantly expand the kinds of video/audio recordings that would be exempt from access by the public; and
  • Second, the bill would impose a wide range of inequitable and chilling costs to the public, media, and any persons as they seek to obtain the redacted materials, in effect compromising the purpose of the law — which was to create a public record that would hold law enforcement officials accountable for their actions.

Let me speak first to the extension of exemptions.

Existing law provides for important, but a limited list of exemptions related to the release of body- worn recordings by police. Section 1 of this bill would significantly expand this exemption to include the non-release of video/audio recordings of “private residences” and of parties in a “state of undress or nudity”.

CCFOI strongly opposes these exemptions.

There are times when the video/audio recordings of police action in a residence captures the essence of the police action itself. The recordings could potentially show critical information pertinent to assessing police accountability. One only as to look at the tragic case of Breonna Taylor in Louisville Kentucky, whose death by police in 2020 resulted when they literally stormed into the wrong residence. Public access to that video was critical to assessing what happened, and directly changed policies in police action. The incident speaks volumes of the need for unfettered access to such videos, regardless of location. This legislation, which would establish exemption of residences on the specious argument of “invasion of public privacy” is a mistake. Likewise, to exempt all video if there is nudity — regardless of context and material relevance to the incident, is inappropriate.

This will not improve policy accountability. Instead, it will further undermine confidence in our police.

CCFOI also opposes the redacting fee proposal contained in Section 2 of the bill.

While we understand the impact of copying/redacting video/audio can have on police costs, the proposal before you is an overly-complicated, fee structure potentially inequitable and subject to wide variation. We believe it will lead inevitably to extreme variations in the cost to obtain redacted copies dependent on which law enforcement agency is involved. There is no uniform, validated method to establishing the real costs. The proposed fees, moreover, allow entirely too much latitude to police in determining how much the redacting work will cost, depending on how and where the redactions are operationalized. Practices, and thus cost, could vary widely among police departments, creating an unequitable economic barrier to access. This can have a chilling effect on access to information to which the public is entitled. Where a police action occurred should not become yet another barrier to gaining public access to information.

Additionally, as currently drafted, the bill does not ensure that police agencies cannot not use the redacting process and fees themselves to inhibit access and/or generate revenue regardless of whether a department has incurred any real additional cost. Let me explain.

According to the existing statute, a significant group of individuals and organizations – most in some direct way a party to the police action – are entitled to obtain redacted video/audio at no cost.

In such cases, the police have performed the work of redacting. However, if an individual or organization is not entitled to these materials at no cost – and seeks virtually the same recordings – the police may charge for the information even though virtually no additional costs were incurred; except for perhaps making a copy or providing the physical media. This is simply another way to deny public access.

When the Legislature enacted C.G.S. 29-6d, the State made a strong policy determination that video/audio recordings from body-worn cameras by police is an important law enforcement tool, both for police and the public, in ensuring police accountability. The law specifically mandates the use of the cameras, the retention of data, and its public access.

To make the police accountability policy effective, public access to recordings demands the widest — not narrow – definitions so the information is available to the public. To mandate the purchase and use of cameras, then to expand the conditions under which the recordings are kept secret is antithetical to the accountability purposes of the statute.

Similarly, attaching any operational barriers – in this case fees — that make it more challenging for individuals to gain access to the recordings takes us in the wrong direction. Access to such records is essential to holding police accountable for their actions. Creating barriers to access this material via potentially inequitable fees, simply is wrong.

Thank you,
Jeffrey Daniels
CCFOI Legislative Co-Chair
CT Council on Freedom of Information