ONA gears up for debate on access to body camera records

By Dennis Hetzel, ONA Executive Director

Should footage from police body cameras be a public record? That’s a question as fresh as today’s news in Cincinnati.

Last Sunday night, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing stopped a motorist off campus after following him for about a half-mile, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. The rationale for Tensing’s stop? The driver, Samuel Dubose, didn’t have a front license plate, which is required in Ohio.

There is no debate that the situation escalated. Tensing, who is white, asked Dubose, who is black, for his driver’s license. Dubose, instead of handing the officer his license, reportedly gave the officer a bottle of alcohol instead. He was unarmed. The men reportedly struggled at the car door and Tensing fired once, hitting and killing Dubose, who drove another block before the car stopped.

Several days later, police released an incident report and tapes of police dispatch audio that have apparent inconsistencies regarding Tensing’s claim that he had to shoot because Dubose tried to get away and dragged the officer following the traffic stop.

There is body camera video of the incident but Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters won’t release it – at least for now. Deters promised to release the footage later, but said release now would damage the ongoing investigation and can be withheld under existing state law. Jack Greiner, attorney for The Enquirer, thinks otherwise, and The Enquirer is contemplating a suit.

It’s a complicated and delicate matter with strong feelings on all sides.  I urge you to read Friday’s Enquirer story for more depth and context. I have three reactions.

First, I think Greiner is right and the body camera footage is presumptively an open record under Ohio law, as it should be.

Secondly, if Deters believes there are portions of the footage that fall into the exceptions under the law, they should redact or edit the video to excise those portions and release the rest without an unreasonable delay, explaining up front that it is edited.

Third, this incident crystallizes the debate over access to body camera footage. Every newspaper I know covers law enforcement. Every newsroom should be paying attention to this issue.

As I told a reporter from WCPO in Cincinnati today, this isn’t about playing “gotcha” with the police. I truly believe that footage will show officers doing their jobs properly 98 percent of the time. It is, however, very much about accountability, transparency and the obligation of journalists to make use of the best-available source material for their coverage.

Now, let’s fast forward to Columbus, where Rep. Kevin Boyce, D-Columbus, is working on a bill to regulate body cameras in Ohio, including how much or how little will be exempted under Ohio’s public records laws.

We’re at the table. The ONA is participating in meetings to help Boyce craft this legislation, which I expect to see later this summer or fall. We have prepared a nine-page discussion paper on the issue, which I urge you to read and share comments. More importantly, you can use this as a starting point for stories, editorials and discussions with local legislators.

Here is the summary of our position.

It’s in the public interest to narrowly craft any new exemptions to the public records law to govern the use of body cameras. Existing exemptions related to police records already cover most situations of concern. Let’s preserve the critical principle that initial activity recorded by law enforcement personnel is presumptively open. Let’s achieve consensus to deal with the remaining policy and practical issues raised by body cameras. An important path to achieving this involves uniform standards on archiving and when cameras must be activated by officers.

We aren’t and shouldn’t be absolutist. There certainly are going to be situations with body cameras that create significant issues of privacy or will involve everything from confidential informants to investigative keys. We are offering concrete, helpful suggestions on the best ways to manage the issues these cameras create without doing severe damage to the ability of Ohio journalists to cover the news in their communities and hold public officials accountable.

This issue isn’t going away – in Ohio and across the country. That’s why our paper has this title: “Police Body Cameras – An FOI Battled Headed to Ohio.” Actually, it’s already here.