Two new bills to re-broaden bans on the public release of death videos could prevent evidence of a case such as Martin Lee Anderson‘s from ever coming to light, and could also prevent disclosures in controversial police shooting cases, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said Monday.
Petersen is raising anew concerns she raised earlier for Senate Bill 968, introduced in February by Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy, with more urgency, now that Democratic state Rep. Kamia Brown of Orlando has introduced a companion bill in the house. Bracy is from the west Orange County town of Oakland, and Brown from neighboring Ocoee.
Senate Bill 968 and House Bill 1115 would expand Florida’s open records exemptions, which currently ban the release of photographs, videos and audio recordings of the deaths of law enforcement officers, to also ban the release of such recordings for any deaths of Florida residents.
In a news release issued Monday by the Florida House Democrats’ office, Brown expressed sympathy for grieving families and the horrors they might experience seeing their loved-ones’ deaths depicted in the media.
“No family member or friend of a victim of a crime should be forced to endure the pain of having their loved one’s death broadcast to the world,” Brown stated.
But Petersen argued that such videos, photographs and audio recordings take on potentially important justice implications when they expose false reports by authorities about victims’ deaths.
Her primary example is that of Martin, the 14-year-old who died in 2006 in one of Florida’s now-shut-down, notorious juvenile boot camps. Martin died during an exercise regimen at the Bay County Boot Camp, run by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. The medical examiner’s first official report indicated he died of sickle-cell trait disorder. But a surveillance camera video emerged showing guards verbally and physically harassing an exhausted Martin into continuing a run until he dropped and died. A follow-up medical examiner’s report found he died of asphyxiation.
The resulting publicity contributed to the reform movement that closed the camps.
Bracy’s office said they had not been made aware of the potential impact on matters such as Martin’s case, and would explore it and respond. Brown’s office said they would explore the issue and respond.
SB 968 was referred to three committees, including the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, which Bracy chairs. HB 1115 also was referred to three committees, including the House Subcommittee for Criminal Justice.
Petersen said she’s also concerned the bills would ban release of videos from police body cameras, dash cams, or other surveillance cameras that might depict what happened in cases where law enforcement officers kill someone, particularly those that become controversial. She noted the North Charleston, S.C., case in which a white officer fatally shot Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, as he ran away. The two bills could shield such a video from ever being released, she said.
“The breadth of this [proposed] exemption is huge,” she said.
It’s also not new. Florida passed a similar law six years ago but it sun-setted last year, replaced with a new law that only covered recordings of law enforcement officers’ deaths.