Mix of doubt, support in Nebraska Legislature for bill on police body-camera use

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LINCOLN — A state senator Thursday questioned what value a measure regarding policies for body-worn police cameras would have for the public.

Legislative Bill 1000 would require law enforcement agencies that equip officers with body cameras to adopt a written policy for their use.

Such policies would have to require users to be trained on how to use the cameras and require that recordings be stored for at least 90 days, among other things.

But members of the public and news media seeking to request footage from the cameras could be denied under a portion of the state public-records law that exempts records that are part of an investigation by a law enforcement agency.

LB 1000 also would require guidelines that make recordings available for “supervisory or internal review consistent with any collective bargaining agreement.”

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an outspoken critic of the police, said that allows the police to withhold such records because they can claim the investigation is still open or ongoing or say their collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow their release.

“Police have a lot to hide,” he said during a committee hearing on the bill Thursday.

Chambers pointed to high-profile cases in Chicago, where videos of officer-involved shootings captured by police equipment weren’t released until months after the incidents happened.

But Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, the bill’s sponsor, said those incidents are part of the reason he brought forward the bill.

Body cameras could protect the public from police misconduct, as well as provide an officer a defense for allegations of misconduct, he said.

The bill also “leaves an important level of discretion to the local agencies” to adopt a policy that works for them, he said.

“What works for the Nebraska State Patrol may not work for the Omaha Police Department or the Beatrice Police Department,” he said.

The measure drew the support of the ACLU of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department, which has used body cameras for the past decade.

Representing the Police Chiefs Association of Nebraska, Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang opposed the bill, saying direction on policies should come from the Nebraska Crime Commission instead of the Nebraska Legislature.

Three others, including Omaha Deputy Police Chief Greg Gonzalez, spoke in a neutral capacity. Gonzalez noted his concern about the cost of storing footage.

A number of Nebraska law enforcement agencies, including those in Lincoln and Bellevue, use body cameras. Omaha will roll out 115 body cameras purchased with donations in the next couple of months, Gonzalez said.

At least 37 states are considering legislation relating to body cameras, Mello said. States with laws range from requiring officers to use body cameras to dictating how they should be used, he said.

Mello, who is considering prioritizing the bill, said he believes the state needs a uniform policy regarding their use because currently there is “a patchwork array of different policies around the state.”