Body Cameras And The Public’s Right To Know
Here’s an article posted today on Cleveland.com about police body cameras. Cleveland police may be equipped with them as soon as next year. I suspect other cities around Ohio and the nation will follow suit. Which for me begs the question, will the footage be a public record? I think the answer is a no brainer. OF COURSE. One of the purposes of equipping cops with body cameras is to ensure accountability. And given that we as members of the public pay their salaries, the police need to be accountable ultimately to us.
And to be clear. I like the police. I think 99% of the time they act in a responsible and professional manner. So, the overwhelming majority should welcome public accessibility. It will vindicate them in controversial situations.
And as for the 1% bad apples? I want to see what they’re up to and make sure they get disciplined appropriately.
The Cleveland.com article refers to a decision from the Ohio 12th Appellate District that ruled Ohio Highway Patrol dash cam video footage was exempt from the Public Records Act as a confidential law enforcement record. This logic could lead to other courts concluding that body cam footage is confidential. That would be unfortunate for a host of reasons.
First, the 12th District is just wrong. Dash cams and body cams don’t disclose any confidential information. They run continuously and record the officer stopping for donuts as well as pursuing a suspect. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled conclusively that initial incident reports and 911 calls are not investigation reports. They may commence an investigation, but they are recorded before any investigation is under way. Body cameras are the same thing.
Second, federal appellate courts have ruled that the public has a First Amendment right to video tape police in action. It goes back to that whole accountability thing I mentioned earlier. So, if I have a First Amendment right to record the activity, it is by definition not confidential. And it seems logical to me that if the First Amendment lets me record, it probably lets me view what someone else has recorded as well.
Oh and one more thing about dash cam videos. They’re SO confidential, the Ohio Patrol routinely posts them on their own YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/OSHP/videos. And yes, the sarcasm is intended