Iowa Public Information Board wants more public access to body cameras

DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) - A state group would like to see more public access to law enforcement body cameras, but some say allowing that to happen could be bad not only for police, but for the people in those videos.

Body cameras have been used at the Dubuque Police Department since 2017, and the Dubuque County Sheriff's Department plans to begin using them in 2019.

The Iowa Public Information Board is proposing action during this coming legislative session, that begins Monday, to increase how much body camera footage law enforcement agencies release.

The board says the public should have access to all video except when there is an expectation of privacy -- like footage from inside a person's home. The proposed bill would require removing video of anyone not involved in an incident.

For the Dubuque County Sheriff's Office, they have been fine-tuning their plans for when they implement agency-wide use of body cameras. Originally, the plan was for July of this year, but Sheriff Joe Kennedy says that all depends when the compatible technology becomes available.

For Sheriff Kennedy and deputies at the Dubuque County Sheriff's Office, the use of body cameras on duty could make their job easier. Sheriff Kennedy also says it will help people feel safer when interacting with deputies.

"It increases transparency and if they have an issue with one of our employees, we can go back and we can investigate it and see what actually happened," Sheriff Kennedy said.

Dr. Valerie Bell, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at Loras College, says while transparency is important, making body camera footage more publicly accessible is not as black and white as people may think.

"I think that transparency is a great thing," Dr. Bell said. "I think the public has a right to know what law enforcement is doing. I also think that it's difficult for civilians to understand what it's like to be the officer."

She said if body camera footage was released, even if you were not a main person involved in an incident, could become embarrassing and problematic for a person.

"Let's say I'm drunk, and I'm on camera with an officer, and that becomes public," said Dr. Bell hypothetically. "That could be really embarrassing for me. People can use that against you."

Dr. Bell brings up concerns for both citizens and law enforcement.

"I think the positives are you have access to everything that occurred during a given situation," Dr. Bell said. "And actually the negatives are probably the same."

TV9 spoke with members of the Dubuque Police Department, an agency that has been using body cameras since early 2017. Officers said said they have no problem sharing body camera footage- as long as the case is closed, will not impede an investigation, and does not identify victims. They said if the situation arose, they would provide the raw footage through Freedom of Information Act requests, and then ask for media outlets to use discretion when sharing it.

Dr. Bell said releasing body camera footage prior to a completed investigation or conviction can bring up problems in itself.

"People should not have to have their face plastered in social media or on the internet when they've been accused of a crime, but haven't been convicted or plead guilty," Dr. Bell said.

As for the Dubuque County Sheriff's Office, they have been working with the Department of Justice and the Dubuque County Attorney to determine their plan for implementation of body cameras. Sheriff Kennedy said the department's goals are to maintain privacy in some cases, while following Freedom of Information Act requests, similar to those of the Dubuque Police Department.

As its written in the proposed bill, there is no timetable as far as how much time a law enforcement agency would have to release footage, but Dr. Bell says it may not matter.

"We like to say that pictures don't lie- I don't believe that," Dr. Bell said.

The body camera proposed bill currently does not have a lawmaker sponsor as the next legislation session nears.