Body Camera Footage and Public Records Law

I’m going to be on WLW radio in the morning talking about whether police body camera footage is a public record. Spoiler alert. I think it is.  And that doesn’t mean that I lack respect for the work police officers do. I have tremendous respect and admiration for their service.  And if the public had prompt access to the body camera footage, the public’s respect for our cops would increase.  

Events from last week illustrate that point.  Here’s some chilling footage of a Glendale Police officer’s interaction with a man walking on I-75.  The police officer had pulled over to inquire why the man was walking on the side of the highway.  Within minutes, the man pulled a knife and refused to comply with the officer’s command to drop the knife.  Ultimately, the officer shot and wounded the man.  

What I find most impressive about the video is the restraint the officer showed. His instinct was not to shoot first. It was the opposite.  I can’t imagine how anyone could view that video and not feel great admiration for the officer.  

But, unfortunately, the police officer’s heroic efforts got obscured somewhat by a completely needless controversy that arose over the release of the footage.  At the direction of the Hamilton County Prosecutor, the Glendale Police initially refused to release the footage.  The Prosecutor feels very strongly that the footage is an “investigative” record and does not need to be released until his office says it’s okay to release it.  

I respectfully disagree, for two reasons.  First, in my view, police body camera footage isn’t an investigative record.  The Ohio Supreme Court has made it clear that incident reports – the written narrative of police/public interactions – aren’t investigatory records.  The incident report may initiate an investigation, but that report is not itself part of any investigation.  And body cam footage is exactly that – a report of an initial interaction.  It’s visual, not written, but that’s a distinction without a difference.   

The Glendale footage illustrates the point.  It wasn’t recorded as part of any investigation. The cop simply offered to give a pedestrian a ride.  It wound up turning into a life or death matter, but the investigation – what happened, why and whether there were any mitigating circumstances – took place later.   

The second reason I disagree is because a record isn’t exempt just because it’s “investigative.”  It’s exempt only if, in addition to actually being an investigative record, it discloses an uncharged suspect, a confidential source, an undercover police officer or a confidential investigatory technique.  So let’s assume for a minute that the Glendale body cam footage is “investigatory.”  Take a look at it.  The footage discloses none of the four items noted above.  So, aside from the fact that it’s not an investigatory record, it wouldn’t be exempt even if it were.  It should have been produced without delay.  And in taking that position I am in no way disrespecting the police.  But I am respecting the law.