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Video Cases Show Tension Between Police, Transparency Advocates

Two recent victories for proponents of releasing police dashboard and body camera video to the public spotlight the tension between national calls for increased transparency and the need to protect privacy and investigations.

In California, state lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would require the release of body cam video in cases involving police use of force or in other significant cases of public interest through the state's public records act.

And in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously in favor of releasing dashboard camera video in the case of a fatal police shooting under common law right of access to public information.

The developments highlighted the struggle between advocates for more access to such video and law enforcement groups' interest in keeping some of those records from the public in a time of increased national attention to police use of force.

Image: Police Body Camera
A Los Angeles police officer wears an AXON body camera during the Immigrants Make America Great March on Feb. 18. David McNew / Getty Images

"It raises very legitimate and serious questions about what the purpose of this technology is," Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told NBC News. "Is it for transparency and to help the public understand what law enforcement is doing, or is it a surveillance tool for law enforcement to be used in furthering their prosecutions and their law enforcement goals?

"It doesn't necessarily have to be a binary choice," he added.

Marshall said that according to the committee's data, "two dozen or so states have modified their public records laws with respect to access to body camera video" — and almost all of them add restrictions and exemptions on disclosure.

Related: Police Body Cams Spark Concerns About Privacy, Mass Surveillance

Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs' Association, defended his organization's opposition to the bill.

"We're not opposed to the use of body cameras — we think it's a worthwhile tool — but the concern we have about AB 748 is it takes the discretion away from the agencies that have those records as to when and how they should be released," he told NBC News, referring to the name of the bill.

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Calling the bill a "one-size-fits-all policy," he added that law enforcement was concerned with protecting the privacy of potential victims if certain video were required to be released, as well as with the potential impact on criminal cases.

The bill would allow agencies to withhold video or audio recordings "if the public's interest in nondisclosure outweighs public concern," according to a statement on the website of Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, the bill's sponsor.

The bill would also allow departments to withhold videos for up to 120 days if disclosing them would substantially impede ongoing investigations. But Salzillo said that might not be long enough "when there's a pending investigation or criminal trial."

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Ting defended the bill on his website, saying, "If body cameras are to strengthen public trust, then we need a statewide standard for the release of body camera footage to the public."

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth millions," he added.

Image: LAPD Officers to Wear Body Cameras
Los Angeles police Officer Jim Stover of the Information Technology Bureau demonstrates use of new body cameras in September 2015. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In New Jersey, state Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote on behalf of the court: "Under the common law, the public's powerful interest in disclosure of that information, in the case of a police shooting, eclipses the need for confidentiality once the available, principal witnesses to the shooting have been interviewed."

Alexander Shalom, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told NBC News that the ruling likely meant the public would have much easier access to police dashboard camera video.

"Not in all cases, but the court made it very clear that for police to have the trust of the community, they need to be transparent about what they're doing," said Shalom, who said he argued for more open access in court last November.

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The court's decision was nuanced, finding that some police records, including dash cam video, would be accessible, while others would be accessible only under certain circumstances.

"The Supreme Court has spoken, accepting many of our arguments and rejecting others," a spokesman for the state attorney general's office told NBC News. "We nonetheless appreciate that the Court gave careful consideration to this important matter and we respect its decision."

Marshall, of the Reporters Committee, said public interest in having access to body and dashboard video went beyond its potential use in criminal prosecutions.

"It also goes toward helping the community understand the operations of their government, and also to be able to participate in the democratic process around reform of police policy and practices if they are necessary," he said.