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Abstract

When President Obama closed 2014 by requesting $263 million to support the deployment of 50,000 body-worn cameras (or BWCs) for state officers, he was endorsing an idea whose time had come. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner provided names and faces to a growing call for police accountability that would eventually develop into the broader Black Lives Matter movement. Brown’s parents themselves vigorously campaigned to place body cameras on every law enforcement officer, at the same time that polling suggested greater white outrage over Garner’s death than Brown’s—quite likely, commentators noted, due to the fact that the former was filmed.

While police body-worn cameras (BWCs) are a promising tool for police accountability, expanding body camera use will come at a serious financial cost, and will require municipalities adopting these programs to make hard choices. In particular, decisions made about retention time and disclosure breadth will be crucial to the financial feasibility of any program. While the ideal program would retain BWC footage for months or even years, the cost of video storage can become prohibitive very quickly. Further, if police footage is treated as a traditional public record under state FOIA laws, departments may be faced with a choice between costly redaction, risking the release of sensitive footage, or scuttling a program altogether.

This Comment asserts that footage access policies can be designed to both serve the public interest and safeguard legitimate privacy interests without breaking the bank for municipalities. The guiding principle I offer is that BWC programs must provide full footage access to the victims of suspected undue police violence and their families—allowing for an accountability baseline and setting victims’ rights as paramount. Public record policies should not impede this core goal by imposing public access where the associated costs could stymie such programs altogether.

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