A proposed Tennessee law would make it a felony for police officers to disable their body cams

Posted at 6:17 PM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-27 18:17:07-05

Two Tennessee lawmakers want to ensure that police officers’ body cameras remain turned on.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Sen. Sara Kyle have introduced bills that would make it a felony for officers to intentionally turn off their body-worn cameras to obstruct justice.

Body cameras are usually worn on officers’ chests and record what they see as they perform their duties. They were introduced with the intention of discouraging police misconduct and to protect officers from unfounded civil complaints.

Five states — California, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida and Connecticut — have enacted laws that require some officers to use body cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But some officers view the cameras as unwanted scrutiny and a sign their supervisors don’t trust them.

Under current state law in Tennessee, prosecutors can file charges against police officers who turn off their body cameras for tampering with evidence. But Hardaway believes the law is not specific enough and needs to be updated to reflect the relatively new video technology.

“There’s nothing more objective than body cams or dash cams,” Hardaway said. “When there’s a police shooting or other incidents that cause harm to citizens, (the public wants) some evidence other than ‘he said, she said’ and that’s what this law speaks to — the new technology.”

Hardaway added that his bill makes clear that “failure of the device to capture certain evidence due to intentional acts on behalf of police officers is unacceptable.”

If the bill passes, violations of the law would be a Class E felony — the least serious felonies. They are punishable by one to two years in prison.

The proposed law comes after three Memphis Police Department officers were charged with departmental policy violations last week for turning off their body cameras during a police chase that ended with 25-year-old Martavious Banks being shot. The officers were placed on unpaid suspensions.

Jim Burch, interim president of the National Police Foundation, expressed concern the bill could penalize officers for situations out of their control, such as if body cameras malfunction.

“In law enforcement, things happen very quickly. (Officers) don’t always have time to go through a checklist before engaging an armed suspect,” Burch said. “There could be an honest mistake that would result in an officer being imprisoned.”

But Hardaway said the bill includes consideration of intent.

“(Intent) would be part of the investigation,” the lawmaker said. “Those innocent situations where something happened with the body cam because of malfunction or some kind of accident is where we need prosecutorial discretion to determine whether to prosecute under this particular law.”