A proposed law would allow municipalities to charge for public requests of police recordings.
UPDATE: Senate Bill 1148 was signed into law by Gov. Katie Hobbs on June 20, 2023.
Antonio Arce and Daniel Shaver were senselessly killed by police. Jay Garcia was surrounded by four Phoenix police officers and fatally shot while sitting in his parked car. And on April 5, Phoenix police shot and killed an elderly man in his apartment—the seventh shooting by Phoenix officers this year that ended in death.
These instances of police aggression occurred throughout the Valley, but have one thing in common: the public would not have known what happened if bodycam footage had not been made public.
Access to police footage could become more difficult, however, as the state legislature is poised to pass a bill that would allow municipalities to charge a fee for public records requests that involve video recordings.
Restricting Access to Public Records
If passed, Senate Bill 1148 would allow municipalities to charge a fee to obtain police recordings, with an exception for a victim of a crime or their family members. While the municipalities would only be allowed to charge a one-time fee, there are no limits on how much the fee would be, and no guarantee regarding how quickly the request is fulfilled.
“When you place an unspecified amount, in terms of what ‘reasonable fee’ will do, that will then deter individuals from accessing public records,” said Democratic Phoenix Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez. “The purpose of public records laws is to hold public officials accountable to the public—not to hold government officials accountable to the public if the public can pay a portion of a police officer’s salary.”
A Hefty Price Tag for Transparency
The effect of this sort of measure has been seen recently in Nebraska, where a news organization was charged $44,000 for public records. The fee was blocked in court, however, as state law in Nebraska only allows government agencies to charge for the time spent redacting documents. No such requirement exists in Kavanagh’s bill, however, paving the way for municipalities to charge any price without restriction.
Even when fees are predetermined, they can vary widely depending on the agency. As reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the North Las Vegas Police Department charges $50 for every hour of footage. The city’s Metropolitan Police Department, however, charges $288 for every hour of footage requested—a $240 increase since they started charging for footage in 2014.
In more complicated police altercations, where footage from multiple officers may be requested, the fees can quickly escalate. A 2015 public records request of a police incident in Sarasota, Florida, involved 84 hours of footage police said would take 458 hours to review and redact.
The total cost? Over $18,000.
What Supporters Say
Several municipalities and law enforcement associations have come out in support of the bill, including officials from the cities of Phoenix and Mesa—both cities that have had officer misconduct revealed through publicly-released bodycam footage.
Supporters point to the high costs associated with redacting footage, a time-consuming task that involves meticulous review of all recordings requested. Allowing municipalities to charge fees would offset these costs.
Some who came out to speak in favor of the bill, such as Martin Lynch of documentation prep service We the People Court Services, claimed without evidence that individuals and groups with anti-police sentiment make excessive requests for police footage—not because they want to review it, but as a strategy to deplete department resources.
“We do know that groups exist whose purpose is to defund the police,” said Lynch. “So if it’s expensive for all this bodcam stuff to all be redacted—if I’m in that position, and I want to cut the budget of the police department and say, ‘oh, I want to look at all the bodycams from everything,’ and I’m sure that some of that is going on right now.”
Lynch also claimed—again, without evidence—that these requests were at the behest of Hungarian-Amderican billionaire and philanthropist George Soros in an effort to dismantle law enforcement.
“Sage point, Mr. Lynch,” responded Queen Queek Republican and internet troll farm operator Rep. Jake Hoffman, who chairs the Senate Government Committee.
Putting a Price on Transparency
But others pushed back on this notion, defending requests for police footage as a First Amendment right to obtain public information that has already been paid for with tax dollars.
“This bill would mean the public wouldn’t have access to the bodycam footage they need, making body cameras irrelevant,” said Tempe Democratic Sen. Juan Mendez. “It might sound like a big demand, to make the footage public, but—I’m not sorry, that’s part of the job. Maybe if we didn’t spend time defunding the government, we’d have more investment to keep the government working.”
SB 1148 passed the state Senate with bipartisan support, and is currently being considered in the House.