Democrats Plan Police Body-Camera Legislation

Two similar Democratic proposals to equip more police officers with body-worn cameras should come into better focus within days, as details emerge on a White House initiative as well as a prominent African-American lawmaker’s legislation in the House.

But GOP lawmakers with authority on the issue on both sides of Capitol Hill are so far tight-lipped.

Body cameras are not a new idea, with many jurisdictions already deploying the devices. But calls to expand their use have gained traction since the August 2014 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer.

As part of a broader community policing initiative designed to ease tensions between officers and the citizens they serve, President Barack Obama asked Congress in December for $75 million in grant money to help law enforcement agencies buy more cameras. The White House, which says that investment could help purchase 50,000 cameras over three years, is expected to include language on the policing plan in its fiscal 2016 budget request due on Feb. 2.

In his State of the Union address last week, Obama made no specific mention of body-worn cameras but did refer to the events in Ferguson, as well as the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police Department officer. And he called for lawmakers, community leaders and law enforcement to make changes to the criminal justice system more broadly.

On top of the $75 million request, the White House also wants to use part of a $55 million tranche included in its overall policing proposal to step up research on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement.

The cameras, supporters say, help boost transparency in officer interactions with the public. But their increasing use also raises questions about privacy and officer discretion.

At a Jan. 13 meeting of Obama’s new policing task force, Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said cameras could push officers to make more arrests, out of fear they might be second-guessed.

A 2013 survey of law-enforcement agencies nationwide found that of those jurisdictions deploying the cameras, nearly a third said they had no written policy governing their use.

“Many police executives reported that their hesitance to implement a written policy was due to a lack of guidance on what the policies should include, which highlights the need for a set of standards and best practices regarding body-worn cameras,” according to the findings from the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Police Executive Research Forum.

The top Democratic appropriators who deal with Justice Department funding are generally supportive of body-worn cameras for police. An aide to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said the Maryland Democrat supports their use by law enforcement, as long as officers are properly trained. And a staff member for Rep. Chaka Fattah said the Pennsylvania congressman supports the White House request for increased funding for the cameras.

But aides to GOP appropriators who oversee Justice funding — Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Rep. John Culberson of Texas — did not respond when asked whether the lawmakers would back the White House request for more money for cameras.

Separately, Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II also plans to reintroduce this month a body-camera authorization bill he first floated in December.

A former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cleaver is an ordained Methodist minister and recently traveled with other CBC members to worship at the Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson, at a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Cleaver has been lobbying hard to build support for his proposal, which would leverage federal grant money to increase use of the cameras by state and local law enforcement agencies. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Cleaver said he wants to create an “atmosphere of inevitability” for passage of his bill.

As introduced last year, Cleaver’s legislation would let the Justice Department offer matching grant money to help pay for body-worn cameras and, in turn, require states and localities to use the cameras in order to maintain their eligibility for any Justice grants.

Cleaver said the Justice Department “may be able” to require the use of cameras by federal grant recipients without an explicit congressional authorization. Currently, body cameras are among those items that law enforcement agencies can purchase using federal criminal justice grants known as Byrne grants.

But Cleaver stressed that a congressional stamp of approval on a camera program would better serve the national interest, as well as ward off any GOP attacks on Obama for acting without Congress.

The Republican-led Judiciary panels, however, are so far not saying whether they’d move to consider such legislation.

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