The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s legislative agenda for the 2021 General Assembly session focuses on the people’s right to record police activities and public access to law enforcement records.
2020 has been a landmark year. It began with the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and a once-in-a-century pandemic that has altered almost every aspect of our daily lives. In the late spring, high-profile police killings around the country led to nationwide protests of racism, the likes of which we have not seen in 60 years.
These events have tested all of us in different ways. And as the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has witnessed over the past several months, they have also tested our system of government.
In many cases, government officials have risen to the occasion. When lockdowns began in March, agencies around the state scrambled to figure out how to move government meetings online. Officials sought advice from the foundation and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office on how to do this effectively. They attended GFAF training on conducting open meetings during a pandemic. They consulted with government attorneys, researched video platforms, and made it work.
Crisis reveals weaknesses in government systems
But of course, times of stress also reveal the weak spots in our systems of government, and we have borne witness to a number of such shortcomings year. For example, GFAF is hearing from an increasing number of citizens whose access to public meetings is being restricted, whether by faulty meeting notices, excessive use of executive sessions, or technological failures that make online meetings inaccessible to the public.
In addition, we are hearing from many Georgians — particularly parents — about the challenges of obtaining public health data about COVID infection rates in communities and schools.
The foundation also has seen gaps in enforcement of the Georgia Open Records Act when it comes to statewide agencies. The law charges the Georgia Attorney General both with enforcing the law and with defending state agencies accused of violating it — creating an inherent conflict.
GFAF has been working with citizens and reaching out to public officials to try to resolve these problems.
Seeking greater transparency in policing
The Black Lives Matter movement and related protests have also caused the foundation to reflect on the ways we can foster justice through greater transparency in Georgia’s agencies, including law enforcement.
In recent years, police dashboard cameras and body cameras have become nearly ubiquitous, and the recordings they make have become increasingly important in helping the public understand and assess situations where officers have used force. Yet under current Georgia law, these videos don’t have to be disclosed to the public until the investigation of an incident is complete. In some cases, disclosure of the videos may not happen until years after the incident takes place. This erodes both the public’s right to know and citizen trust in law enforcement.
Our society functions best when the public has free and open access to information about what its government is doing. The General Assembly has codified this guiding principal in the Open Records Act. While the law allows some exceptions when there is a good reason to do so, we must now recognize that we do not have a good reason to hide video recordings of police officers using force against citizens. The public deserves to see these videos and judge the incidents for themselves.
This is something that even those in law enforcement believe would be a change for the better. For example, during a GFAF panel discussion in October, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds told the audience that, in his view, waiting until an investigation or prosecution has ended to release video of police activity, potentially years after the incident, is not healthy for our society. He said it is not the way things should work.
The foundation agrees with Director Reynolds. Increasing transparency around these videos would mean greater accountability for law enforcement agencies and would eventually foster a greater sense of trust in our institutions.
Legislative priorities focus on public access
To that end, in the upcoming session, GFAF will encourage lawmakers to consider reducing or eliminating the time that police video can be kept secret from the public.
The foundation plans to work with legislators, agencies and stakeholders from across the political spectrum to introduce legislation that would make some important changes to Georgia law:
- First, we will urge legislators to make the investigation file of any police use-of-force incident available to the public no more than 180 days after an incident.
- Second, we will ask lawmakers to require law enforcement officers to disclose within 21 days all video and audio recordings of an incident where someone has filed a complaint about officer misconduct.
- Third, we will encourage the General Assembly to enshrine in law a citizen’s right to make audio and video recordings of police activity.
The foundation will work hard to educate lawmakers and stakeholders about the importance of transforming these ideals into law in Georgia. We believe that they will help all Georgians continue to scrutinize our government and will lead to greater trust in our institutions.
We are interested in your feedback about our legislative goals. Please share your comments with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and keep up with our news here, on this Legislative Watch page, as well as via Twitter @Ga_FAF and on Facebook. Check out foundation updates and GFAF in the news. And sign up for our e-newsletters.
We look forward to a productive year under the Gold Dome. Thanks for your support of GFAF’s open government mission.