By Alan Miller, editor, The Columbus Dispatch Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman wisely has appointed a committee to review body cameras for police officers.
The purchase of the devices for 1,900 city officers seems inevitable; the question is when it will happen. City Council President Andrew J. Ginther, as a candidate for mayor, has proposed that they be purchased as soon as next year. Opponent Zach Scott, the Franklin County sheriff, has questioned their cost and how they’d be used.
Police Chief Kim Jacobs says the estimated $10 million to $15 million needed to buy the cameras and store the images isn’t in her budget.
The mayor’s task force looking at various aspects of the devices met for the first time on Oct. 23. And the group of city employees and community leaders will meet again on Thursday.
Columbus Public Safety Director George Speaks told the task force that that it would delve first into privacy issues raised by the cameras.
These questions of privacy fall under the larger umbrella of the public records law, and we ask that the committee examine this law closely and that this city and all others that seek to use such cameras follow the law.
Further, we ask state officials to set clear standards for the use and retention of such video and public access to it.
We ask this not in the name of “selling papers” or anything other than transparency in policing and good government. We routinely make such requests and push for open access to government records because it is in society’s best interest.
Ohio’s public-access laws are an antiseptic against ill-willed behavior and inappropriate action by government officials.
In short, the reason to have cameras on cops is accountability — so that the public can see what’s happening in our cities. We already have seen many cases in which such video shows police officers doing their jobs properly. The recordings provide clear evidence for their need to take quick action at a crime scene.
We also have seen instances, such as with the shooting of a motorist by a University of Cincinnati officer, in which an officer makes a bad decision and should be disciplined or even prosecuted.
The Ohio Newspaper Association has drafted provisions that should be included in state legislation to provide uniform standards to assure consistency in the retention and release of video.
Until uniform state rules are enacted, we ask all jurisdictions to uniformly treat body camera recordings as the public records that they are. Among the points we in the media make to lawmakers:
• Body camera footage is a record like any other, so it must be subject to the open-records laws. Existing exceptions to those laws, by statute or court decision, cover most areas of concern about privacy. If someone believes new exemptions are needed to deal with any unique issues of privacy raised by body cameras, they should be crafted clearly and narrowly. Special exceptions should not be left to the sole discretion of a police chief.
• When there are exceptions, police agencies must follow existing legal standards that say if a record can be made public by redacting the exempted information, redacting (editing or blurring) that specific information must be the outcome — not denial of access to the entire recording.
• Permanent logs of archived recordings must be kept, and we urge uniform labeling, including keyword standards of basic information, to make it easy for government employees and the public to easily find the recordings when needed. When recordings have been redacted or deleted, that also must be noted. These logs always should be open to the public.
We respect and appreciate the thoughtful approach the city of Columbus is taking. And we respectfully ask that all involved focus on the reason for this exercise — accountability — and that it will happen only when the public has access to these public records.