Florida legislators are thinking about handing some opacity back to Florida law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. The tragedy of the event was compounded by on-site law enforcement’s response: that is, there wasn’t any. Faced with increased scrutiny over a handful of mass shootings in the state, at least one legislator’s response has been to bury the bad news under a new public records exemption. [h/t War on Privacy]
In less than three years, Florida has seen the second-deadliest mass shooting – Pulse nightclub – and the second-deadliest school shooting – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. One gunman killed five at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Another killed five at a Sebring bank.
Yet Senate Bill 186 would create an exemption to the state’s public records law for all photographs and audio and video recordings that relate to the “killing of a victim of mass violence.” The bill defines mass violence as the killing of at least three people, not including the perpetrator. Violation would be a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Senator Tom Lee’s bill is a gift to the government at large, even if law enforcement agencies and schools will be the most direct recipients of this largesse. If this “privacy protection” had been in place a few years ago, the public would have had no idea how badly the Broward County Sheriff’s Department botched its response to the school shooting. Not only would that have kept the BCSD relatively free of criticism, it would have shielded its oversight — state legislators — from being asked what they were doing to prevent school shootings and/or ensure better response from those expected to serve and protect the public.
Supporters of bills like these claim it’s all about protecting the privacy of crime victims and their families. But as the excellent Sun Sentinel op-ed points out, most requests to block release of recordings originates with governments and businesses rather than the victims and their loved ones. These requests have prevented the public from accessing key details in everything from Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona crash to an inmate’s death at the hands of jailers.
The law already blocks the release of recordings containing the death of a law enforcement officer. This addition could be read to cover any deadly incident in which more than one person is killed. Any whistleblower releasing recordings to show the public what really happened — rather than the official narrative — will now face felony criminal charges for doing the right thing. This isn’t going to restore confidence in government agencies and their response to deadly incidents. All it will do is drive a wedge between them and the people they serve.
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