In this June 12, 2018 photo, Mitchell, S.D., Assistant Police Chief Michael Koster shows a first generation body camera at the police department in Mitchell, S.D. Los Angeles County deputies, who make up the largest sheriff's department in the nation, will begin getting body-worn cameras in October, the sheriff announced Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Credit: Briana Sanchez / The Argus Leader via AP

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If it wasn’t already clear before, events over the past year have crystallized the important role that video has in evaluating the use of deadly force by police. The entire country could see for themselves how former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck and killed him. While an initial police report failed to reflect the horrific reality of the situation, a bystander video captured the truth and forced all of us to confront it.

Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment lawyer and partner with Preti Flaherty in Portland, told the BDN editorial board that the national outcry following Floyd’s death shows how valuable a video recording can be.

“In that case the recording was by a bystander. But there aren’t always bystanders,” Schutz said. “Often the only recording is by police cameras.”

In the push to find common ground on police reform, expanding the use of officer-worn body cameras should be an easy place of agreement. Many law enforcement officials embrace the use of body cameras, not just to provide accountability and transparency to the public, but because this video can actually help exonerate officers when they face unfounded accusations or have acted reasonably and lawfully.

Funding for these cameras is certainly an important part of the equation, but so are state laws governing the public release of the video.

Just look at the ongoing case of Andrew Brown, Jr. in North Carolina. Brown was shot and killed by officers in April. A prosecutor says Brown hit deputies with his car. Brown’s family and lawyers, who had to fight in court to gain access to more, but not all, of the footage from the deadly incident, say that didn’t happen. The public, which hasn’t had access to the existing footage, is left wondering which of these divergent accounts is correct. It shouldn’t be this way.

The need for action is not limited to other areas of the country. The Hill recently had a story on the “9 states with some of the strictest rules on releasing body cam videos,” and Maine was included. This is not a list we should want to be on as a state.

A BDN story from 2017 remains instructive about the shortcomings of how Maine approaches the release of video recordings involving police use of force. Maine has no specific statute for releasing this footage. Instead, it is lumped in with all investigative records. The Maine Freedom of Access Act, which is riddled with exceptions, has also come into play. The resulting gray area leads to situations like the one in Portland four years ago, when the police department refused to release dashboard camera footage, citing open investigations and exceptions to the public records law.

“If we’re not going to show the video to anyone, that kind of undermines the point,” Schutz told a BDN reporter at the time. That is still true today, and it’s something we’re thinking about as Bangor prepares its own police body camera program.

We applaud the City of Bangor and the Bangor Police Department for m oving in this direction. But for this move to maximize gains in accountability, transparency and trust building, the state needs to better define the process for releasing body camera video to the public and make it easier for communities to do so.

A bill currently before the Legislature, LD 1480, could be a vehicle for carefully crafted change. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey has generally endorsed the idea of “providing more prompt access” to video recordings of use of force incidents. But Frey suggested “a more tailored approach” than what is currently in LD 1480, saying there are other factors to balance against unrestricted release of these materials.

“For example, integrity of an investigation and privacy interests may weigh against immediate, unredacted release of video,” Frey testified about the bill. “It should be a case-by-case assessment that may be guided by more specific requirements than presently contained in [current statute].”

This is a complicated issue, for sure. But the status quo is backwards. It appears that body camera footage is typically being treated as confidential information, and is not being released fast enough or often enough. Instead, the presumption should be that this footage is public material that will only be withheld from the public when there are strong and well-defined reasons for doing so.

“In my view non-disclosure would be justified only when necessary to serve a compelling interest,” Schutz told the BDN this week. “The footage can protect the police from unfounded accusations of misconduct, and holds police accountable where there is misconduct.”

That last part is key. Body camera footage can hold police officers accountable for their actions, but also can help the police explain those actions to the public.

The benefit of body camera footage can work both ways, but generally in the direction of truth. State law should not create barriers or enable excuses that prevent this transparency from taking hold in Maine communities.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...