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Arizona budget: Body cams for DPS troopers, public access to video limited

Police Body Camera
Posted at 2:17 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 00:24:01-04

PHOENIX — A preliminary state budget includes funding to fully outfit state troopers with body cameras, although the Department of Public Safety would have wide latitude to deny public requests to view the videos even if they depict a crime, deadly force, or trooper misconduct.

Arizona state legislators began to debate 11 budget-related bills Tuesday morning. They could receive final passage by the end of the week.

The budget includes $6.9 million in FY2022 to buy the cameras and associated equipment. There will be ongoing expenses for video storage and civilian workers to manage, make copies, and distribute the video to attorneys and the public.

"There's enough in there to outfit each trooper with two body cameras that way one could download where the other one is being worn," said Rep. Regina Cobb, the Republican chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Demands for trooper body cams escalated after a DPS trooper George Cervantes shot an unarmed man, Dion Johnson, in his car on May 25, 2020.

Cervantes found Johnson asleep in his car alongside Loop 101 that morning. The trooper reported he removed a gun from the vehicle, saw open alcohol containers, and tried to shut off the ignition all before Johnson woke up. Cervantes claimed Johnson had struggled with him and reached for his service weapon before the shooting, but there was no body-worn camera or dashcam to fully capture what happened.

House Bill 2893, and a companion bill in the state senate, would prevent DPS from releasing body camera video unless one or more of the following conditions are met:

  • All people, other than police officers, shown in the video consent to its release
  • DPS, as custodian of the video, determines there is "an important public purpose" for releasing the video including whether a crime occurred, officers used force, or officers were accused of misconduct

"It's written in a way to essentially give carte blanche to DPS to determine what they want to release," said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Laveen. "It doesn't do anything in terms of increasing the public's confidence and in transparency and accountability."

Cobb insists the restrictions are important to "help protection of the private individual."

If the bill passes, the person requesting DPS body cam video must give specific details of time, place, and names of people in the video, and the requester would have to pay a fee to compensate employees for their time to retrieve, review, and redact the video.

State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the requesting requirements and fees would prevent people from large-scale requests which he dubbed "fishing expeditions."

DPS officials would have to view the video to consider the privacy of the people depicted and make decisions about redaction.

Rep. Rodriguez called the limitation on video release is "ridiculous."

"It's just going to inspire people to keep pushing, so that we can make sure that this agency is proper, not only properly equipped, but also properly supervised, and operates under a clear set of rules that serve the public interest by making sure that this is all done in a transparent and accountable way," Rodriguez said.

A previous bill to fund DPS body cameras, with a different amendment to limit video release, stalled in the Arizona Senate last month.