Police body cameras would restore public trust, proponents said. They would infuse transparency into the murky, complicated human interactions in which officers daily find themselves, they promised. They would be a hard defense against police abuse, they swore.
So many promises. So little transparency to see it through.
In the past two years, proponents of body cameras — often police departments themselves — made a lot of promises about the expensive, potentially invasive technology. But as last week's denial of a Freedom of Information request by Bettendorf's city attorney proves, the promise of body cameras hinges on Iowa lawmakers' commitment to presumed transparency.
So far, they've done nothing, opting instead to permit Iowa's Freedom of Information Act to fall further out of date.
The body camera problem is mounting throughout the country. Only six state legislatures have shown the grit to update FOIA to include the new technology. In almost all cases, state lawmakers — often backed by the very same police unions that championed body cameras — have gutted the promised transparency by all but fully exempting the footage from public view. In North Carolina, for instance, the move was in direct response to fervor over a police shooting of yet another young, black man — ironic because it's that very same issue that first propelled body cameras into the forefront of modern policing.
Quashing public access superseded accountability.
Iowa, on the other hand, has done nothing. In many respects, it's no better than North Carolina's crackdown. Body cameras achieve their oft-stated purpose only if the public has access to questionable cases.
Make no mistake, there's very real privacy concerns surrounding the footage. Dash board footage is confined to a cruiser's anterior view. Officers wearing body cameras catch significantly more intimate moments, often inside people's homes, police regularly note. Clearly, any update to Iowa's FOIA should include specific exemptions for these scenarios. It would have to exempt video integral to an active investigation.
That's all fair. But fostering a situation where body camera footage is, by default, shielded from public view is not.
Illinois' FOIA offers sweeping exemptions for body camera footage, which troubles many watchdogs. But, at the very least, it generally requires release following a police-involved shooting. Iowa's FOIA should require the release of any video associated with a police-involved shooting. That requirement alone would compel Bettendorf to release last month's shooting of a man wielding an airsoft-type toy weapon in Home Depot. It should require the release of any video related to founded allegations of an officer's abuse of power.
In short, it should codify the stated intent of body cameras. The technology in Iowa protects cops, sure. It does not, however, serve the public. As it stands, individual departments are, largely without oversight, drafting their own rules. As in Bettendorf, those informal rules tend to favor secrecy, while FOIA's very soul exists within the presumption of access. It's hardly a recipe for accountability.
Until then, body cameras in Iowa will be nothing more than another prosecutorial tool. They indeed will protect officers from false allegations of abuse. But body cameras will do little to protect the populace footing the bill or to restore confidence among perpetually over-policed communities.
A lot of promises were made when body cameras crashed onto the scene, especially after Ferguson, Missouri, burned. And, on its face, body cameras do offer potential for real accountability. They can prove that most cops are noble public servants thrown into no-win situations. And they root out instances in which an officer acted as judge, jury and — sometimes — executioner.
The potential of body cameras is undeniable. But it only works if the public can see the footage.