Shortly after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer in August 2014, the department’s on-duty officers started wearing body cameras while on duty. And the federal government’s consent decree, which came in response to Brown’s death, mandated Ferguson officers wear them.
But a group of Ferguson residents wants to put the use of cameras into the city charter as a means of ensuring it continues long after federal oversight is over.
Proposition A, which is on the April 4 ballot, requires officers to have the body cameras turned on while they are on patrol, with some exceptions. It also sets out how long the city would need to store the footage, and who could access it. The requirements would apply to any department that might take over policing in Ferguson in the future, should municipal mergers occur.
"If there’s one thing that I think everybody in Ferguson would agree on, it’s that we’d like to have a video of what happened on Canfield Drive back in August of 2014,” said Nick Kasoff, a Ferguson resident who helped write the proposition and get it on the ballot. “If we had that, Ferguson wouldn’t be a hashtag. It would be just another quiet suburb of St. Louis."
The amendment doesn’t include any funding for the cameras or the storage of the footage — which can cost thousands of dollars per year. That gave Ferguson resident Barbara Jost pause.
“I’m planning on voting for that, but I do have a concern about how it would funded so that it would be sustained throughout,” Jost said.
Ferguson voter Ank Ankenbrand supports the use of body cameras, but said he was likely going to vote against the amendment because the consent decree made it redundant.
“I think that it’s clear that the city and the police are going to do this. It just seems like hitting us over the head with it,” Ankenbrand said.
Both of the candidates running for mayor support Proposition A, though Mayor James Knowles said he wasn’t sure if there were strong enough protections to make sure footage isn’t released improperly.
“It’s obviously an unresolved issue even at the state level as to what kind of information would and would not be accessible via a Sunshine Law request,” he said.
The amendment needs a simple majority to pass.
- Officers must turn the camera on at the start of shift and keep it running for the entire time they are on duty. They must notify anyone they interact with that they are recording as soon as possible.
- Failing to wear or turn on a camera would be considered misconduct; officers receive an official letter each time he or she forgets.
- Cameras may be turned off for personal or restroom breaks, but the officer must record a message saying why he or she is turning off the camera.
- Undercover officers do not have to use a camera.
- Officers cannot look at the footage before giving statements.
- The footage cannot be used for commercial purposes. Officers cannot “edit, alter, erase or distribute” video from the body cameras, dashboard cameras or other public cameras operated by the city.
- Recordings made in public places are considered open records to the degree allowed by state law, and must be available to the public for free. Last year, then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, signed a bill that made all body and dashboard camera footage a closed record until law enforcement decides not to pursue the case, prosecutors run out of time to file charges or the person charged runs out of appeals.
- Footage recorded in a non-public place can be closed, but anyone who appears in the video can request the footage free of charge.
- Anyone who is charged with a crime can access any footage from body or dashboard cameras or other cameras operated by the city.
- The city can provide access to public footage by sending a link to a website. People who can look at closed footage have to be given access to a secure website.
- The City Council will receive a monthly report on use-of-force incidents, including the relevant camera footage. Those reports will be available on the city’s website.
- The city will develop and update a database of complaints from citizens where video footage might show what happened. The City Council will get a monthly update on the number of pending and resolved complaints, which will be available on the website.
- Officers must upload the footage to a secure server by the end of their shift.
- The city must keep unedited recordings of footage that relates to ongoing investigations, use-of-force incidents, civilian complaints and active criminal or civil cases. Any other footage can be erased after two years, unless state or federal law requires it to be kept longer.
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