Disabling Police Body Cams Could Be Made A Felony Under Proposed Tennessee Law

March 28, 2019

Two Tennessee lawmakers, State Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Senator Sara Kyle, have introduced legislation that cracks down on any police officers who obstruct justice by intentionally turning off their body-worn cameras. If their proposed bills are approved, this law-breaking action would be charged as a felony.

In recent years, a steadily increasing number of police departments across the United States have implemented the use of body-worn cameras. Five states have even enacted laws that require some officers to use body cameras. These states are California, Nevada, Florida, Connecticut, and South Carolina.

Officers typically wear body cameras on their chests to record what they see and what occurs during their daily duties. Similar to a densely packed parking lot’s security cameras that are meant to discourage aggressive thieves who can steal between 10 and 15 converters a day, the intent of police body cameras is partially to discourage citizens from illegal activity. They are also meant to prevent police misconduct and combat unfounded civil complaints against officers.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 66% of officers and 93% of the public are in favor of officers using body cameras to record interactions with citizens. Despite the majority of officers favoring body cameras, some view using them as unwanted scrutiny and an indication that their department doesn’t trust them.

Currently, Tennessee law dictates that the district attorney can file charges against an officer who turns off their body camera for tampering with evidence. Hardaway believes that this policy is not specific enough and needs an update in order to cover the relatively new video technology.

“There’s nothing more objective than body cams or dash cams. When there’s a police shooting or other incidents that cause harm to citizens, (the public wants) some evidence other than ‘he said, she said’ and that’s what this law speaks to — the new technology,” Hardaway says.

If the law passes, violations of it would be classified as a Class E felony. The least serious of felonies, it would be punishable by up to two years in prison. This consequence of obstructing justice would be the same as what a citizen faces when they do something that intentionally impedes a police investigation.

The proposed legislation follows last September’s case involving the Memphis Police Department and Martavious Banks. A police chase ended in 25-year-old Banks being shot. Last week, three officers were charged with departmental policy violations for turning off their body cameras during the chase. The officers were also placed on unpaid suspensions.

Interim president of the National Police Foundation Jim Burch has expressed concern that the proposed bill would harm officers who weren’t responsible for their cameras not recording interactions. For instance, the body cameras could malfunction or an officer could make an honest mistake.

Officials also point out that body-worn cameras are already programmed to automatically turn on within 10 seconds of when officers turn on their flashing blue lights. Officers will use their lights for calls that don’t necessarily include a potentially violent incident, including calls for alarms going off that make up 10% to 25% of all calls for police.

However, Hardaway maintains that his proposed legislation includes consideration of intent. Each case would be individually investigated and authorities would use prosecutorial discretion to determine the intent of the officers involved. If the officers were charged with a felony, their cases could be part of the 1% of civil cases that reach trial in Federal courts. 

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