Clinic Releases Paper on Body Camera Access Laws


Amid controversy surrounding recent police shootings of unarmed individuals and increasing calls for the nationwide adoption of officer body cameras, the Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic at Yale Law School has released a comprehensive white paper advocating for public access to the footage collected by such cameras.

The white paper, Police Body Cam Footage: Just Another Public Record, details the great public interest in disclosure of the images captured by police body cameras and comprehensively demonstrates that standards already well established in state open records laws are more than sufficient to protect privacy and prevent interference with on-going criminal investigations.

By releasing the paper, the clinic is aiming to highlight an issue it believes is frequently ignored in the criminal justice reform discussion. Without public access to body camera footage, the cameras cannot serve their purpose as public oversight tools, the white paper finds. The Clinic encourages state legislatures to preserve public access to body camera footage so that the press, watchdog organizations, and individuals affected by police encounters can collectively work to ensure institutional accountability.

Every state has “Freedom of Information” (FOI) laws that enable public access to government records, including many police records. Like the federal Freedom of Information Act, these laws serve to ensure transparency and accountability in government. Much of the accountability-enhancing effect of body cams hinges on open access to the footage after it is recorded, the clinic said. However, many states have already passed, or are considering passing, new laws to place body camera footage beyond the reach of FOI laws. The white paper demonstrates in depth why body camera footage should be treated like all other public records currently subject to FOI laws. Existing FOI laws and exemptions adequately address the privacy concerns raised by access to body camera footage while still ensuring public access, according to the clinic.

“Last week, a judge ordered the release of dash camera footage in the killing of Laquan McDonald, after the Chicago Police Department tried to keep the footage from release for months,” said clinic member Divya Musinipally ’16. “Without strong access laws, police misconduct will continue without accountability or consequence.” By releasing the white paper, MFIA students have created a valuable toolbox of legal principles and case studies for both policymakers and nonprofit groups to combat policies that restrict access to body camera footage. 

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic is a legal services clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression through impact litigation, direct legal services, and policy work. The clinic is an initiative of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School and is funded by the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression.