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Kentucky General Assembly Previews 2021 Criminal Justice Policy Priorities

While Kentucky’s legislature is not expected to reconvene until next year, interim committee meetings and preliminary discussions on draft legislation are ongoing.

Last week, Senate President Robert Stivers announced his plan to spearhead bipartisan, bicameral legislation that significantly limits the use of no-knock search warrants in Kentucky. Exceptions to the prohibition would be limited to hostage situations, search warrants attached to arrest warrants, or threat to life or bodily injury. The Stivers policy also outlines remedies for violations. First, improperly obtained evidence could be suppressed at trial. Second, there could be entity liability (the employer of the officer in violation may be held financially liable), and there could be a waiver of qualified immunity if an officer acts with gross negligence or willful misconduct (the officer may be held personally liable).

Right on Crime supports limiting no-knock warrants to situations where probable cause exists to believe a hostage is being held at the location to be searched or where prior notice would endanger the life or safety of the officer or another person. Lawmakers must take care to avoid enacting language that merely becomes boilerplate language for officers to use in no-knock search warrant applications, and instead requires a thorough judicial review to examine and scrutiny the necessity of each no-knock warrant request.

The same day as President Stivers’ announcement, the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary convened to discuss implementing body cameras in police departments across the Commonwealth. Similar to no-knock warrants, the issue of police body cameras has sparked renewed interest in Kentucky due to the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee. The Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, Kentucky Sheriff’s Association, and Kentucky League of Cities all provided testimony on the benefits and drawbacks of body cameras. Overall, all witnesses gave favorable views on the use of body cameras.  In agencies where body cameras are used, the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police report improvements, including improved transparency and community trust, fewer complaints and incidents of use of force, as well as corroborating evidence for courts. However, each stressed the huge financial burden any mandatory use of body cameras would create, especially during the current financial crisis. According to Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain’s estimate, equipping 30 officers in Daviess County with body cameras, plus hiring an evidence clerk to be the custodian of the recordings and to respond to open records requests, would cost his county up to $500,000 over a five-year period, well beyond their budgetary capabilities.

Should the Kentucky General Assembly move forward with legislation on body cameras, legislators should consider a number of issues. First, lawmakers should be wary of issuing an unfunded mandate regarding the implementation of a body camera program. The cost of purchasing, maintaining, and replacing the equipment, plus the much more significant costs associated with storing, retaining, and releasing the footage, are insurmountable for many agencies, especially small, local police departments. Second, legislators must take care to address the privacy concerns of those recorded: suspects, witnesses, victims, juveniles, and the general public. This is of particular concern in healthcare or educational settings, where HIPPA and FERPA protections might come into play. Finally, one-size-fits-all recording and retention policies may not work in every scenario. Consideration and flexibility should be applied depending on the alleged offense and/or purpose for a police encounter (ranging from an inadvertent encounter to a routine traffic stop to a deadly force encounter), what police department is involved (for example, campus police versus state police), and the financial capabilities of the law enforcement agency.  Right on Crime urges legislators to avoid any mandates on the use of cameras, ensure all necessary privacy protections, and allow flexibility in how agencies implement body cameras in their jurisdictions.

As policymakers move forward on interim policy discussions, they should continue to strive to ensure new policies will both improve public safety of Kentuckians and protect taxpayer dollars, especially in times of severe financial stress throughout the state.

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