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New bill could impact body cam footage releases

Posted at 10:57 PM, Feb 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-15 23:09:55-05

LEE COUNTY, FLA — They say a picture never lies, but what about video?

According to the Deputy Chief of the North Port Police Department, Christopher Morales, video works too.

"Something that could have took three weeks of investigating, ended within 3 minutes of watching the video," he said.

In 2019, Morales told FOX 4 that body camera footage helped them clear up accusations against an officer.

This kind of video has become a silent, third witness in law enforcement encounters.

When it comes to body cam footage, at this point, it's been up to the discretion of law enforcement agencies to determine whether or not to release all or part of it.

But a newly proposed state senate bill wants to change that.

State Senate Bill 732 would require law enforcement agencies to hold onto the body camera footage of any incident where an officer or deputy shoots at someone or uses excessive force that kills or injures someone.

Once the internal investigation into the incident is done, the agency would then have to release that footage, with few exceptions.

Florida Gulf Coast University professor and former police officer Dave Thomas says the bill will promote a level of transparency that's not always practiced.

"I think that that needs to be done so that people really understand why something happened," he said, "When you leave law enforcement to its own devices without oversight, then it loses perspective of what the job actually is. And you spend a tremendous amount of time trying to protect yourself when it's not necessary."

When similar bills have been proposed in the past, agencies complained that the cost to store that footage longer term would break the bank.

But Thomas says these incidents typically don't happen often enough for that excuse to work.

"If you're talking about a limited data set, then no it's not cost-prohibitive," he said.

Above all else, Thomas says it will also allow for agencies to defend their actions when justified and explain when mistakes are made.

"The guys and gals are gonna make mistakes and that's a fact of life, that's going to happen," he said.

If passed, this bill would take effect in July of this year.