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Body cams: public records?

Cameras of all sorts are everywhere. Sometimes what they record is routine and innocuous, but often the events that are captured raise questions.

When video recordings are prepared by or for a government agency in New York, they are “records” subject to rights conferred by FOIL (Freedom of Information Law). As in all instances, their content and the effects of disclosure are the key factors in determining which portions are public or may be withheld.

If a surveillance camera is mounted on a police vehicle in plain sight in the park and captures what anyone in a public place can see, the video would be available under FOIL to anyone. Its presence, in fact, deterred bad behavior. But if a camera is hidden and placed in a high crime area to record what may be criminal activity, the recording might justifiably be withheld.

Those are easy examples, but what about police officers’ use of bodycams? If a video involves the commission of a crime, disclosure might interfere with an investigation or deprive a person of a right to a fair trial. If it involves the person on the street who’s a witness, disclosure could jeopardize that person’s safety. If it’s the victim of a crime ..., disclosure might result in an invasion of privacy.

By Robert J. Freeman, executive director

New York State Department of State

Committee on Open Government, Albany

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