NEFAC, R.I. Open Government Groups: LEOBOR Bills ‘Take a Step Backward’ in Transparency

Originally published here on May 10, 2024.

The New England First Amendment Coalition and a group of Rhode Island open government advocates are expressing serious concerns about a bill requiring police departments to keep secret certain body-worn camera footage that would otherwise be subject to the state’s public records law.

Two companion bills (H7263A and S2096A) make changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, or LEOBOR. A provision in the House version, however, provides the following:

A police chief “shall be prohibited from releasing any video evidence . . . about or concerning an incident or matter of public interest involving [a police officer]” if it relates to summary suspensions imposed for undefined “minor” violations of departmental rules.

This section, in other words, establishes an absolute ban on public access to body camera footage whenever a “minor” violation of department rules is involved, even if the footage would have previously been accessible under the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

In a May 10 memorandum — drafted by the ACLU of Rhode Island and sent to several state senators — NEFAC and others explained that a “minor” violation could be interpreted in the following ways:

  • An officer is alleged to have been disrespectful to, or used inappropriate language with, a member of the public during an encounter. This would be a “minor” violation of police rules, so the public would never be able to see the footage to confirm (or deny) what the victim has alleged.
  • A person complains he was struck by a police officer. The officer did not turn on his body camera footage until the end of the incident, so no abuse is captured on tape. The officer is charged with a “minor” violation of failing to turn on his camera. The public would never be able to see the footage that, by inference, might lend credence to the victim’s allegations based on the timing when the officer turned the camera on.
  • A person alleges that police officers used excessive force against him in effectuating an arrest. Reviewing the body camera footage, the chief concludes that the force used did not rise to the level of a criminal assault but that the arrest should have been handled more professionally. Again, the footage would be required to be kept secret under this provision.

“It is deeply troubling and sadly ironic that, as a result of this provision, a bill designed to promote greater police transparency does the opposite,” the groups wrote in their memorandum. “Unlike LEOBOR, police body worn cameras are a fairly new feature of policing in Rhode Island. Prohibiting the release of a wide swath of video sets a troubling precedent and undermines the very purpose of having the cameras.”

NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. All coalition briefs, advocacy letters and statements can be found here.