Dispatch editorial: Relinquish bodycam videos

Editorial by The Columbus Dispatch

Pressure on police departments to adopt the use of body cameras continues, but even as more departments adopt the technology, the rules governing its use and access to the video it records remain very uncertain.But at present, police officials across the state are free to write their own bodycam policies, and even though legal precedent dictates that such videos are public records, some departments have imposed new and unacceptable exceptions to openness.

For example, the Cincinnati Police Department's draft policy says that video of a police shooting is an open record, but video of a DUI stop can be released only with the consent of the county prosecutor.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters already is locked in a legal battle with the Cincinnati Enquirer and other local media over the fatal shooting of an unarmed motorist by a University of Cincinnati police officer in July. Immediately after the shooting, Deters refused to release video of the incident, claiming it was an investigatory record, one of the exceptions to the open-records law. He released the video only after deciding to press charges against the officer. The matter is now before the Ohio Supreme Court. The Enquirer and its allies argue that bodycam video is no different in essence than 911 calls and police incident reports, both of which are public records.

Meanwhile, House Bill 407 awaits action in the General Assembly. The bill sponsored by State Reps. Cheryl Grossman, R-Grove City, and Kevin Boyce, D-Columbus, would require any police department that uses bodycams to adopt a written policy about how they will be used and to train officers to comply with the policy.

While requiring a written policy is a valuable step, it does nothing to ensure public access to the videos, nor does it require any uniformity in policies from one department to the next.

Leaving the issue to be litigated case by case in the courts also is an unsatisfactory outcome, first because it is agonizingly slow and expensive, and because the result could very well be a murky hodge-podge of decisions that require even more litigation to clarify.

It would be far better for the legislature to act now, while the use of bodycams is in its infancy, to explicitly affirm in state law that bodycam videos are public records.

In October, the Ohio Newspaper Association, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters and the Associated Press published an outline of what is needed. The media agencies called for legislation that explicitly declares bodycam video to be a public record and that establishes uniform statewide openness standards for all police agencies. In cases where portions of a video qualify as exempt from open-records law, the video should be redacted, not withheld entirely, and in the event that new exemptions are deemed necessary, they should be tailored as narrowly as possible. The proposal also calls for the law to provide citizens a means to petition a court for release, ideally without having to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit. Finally, the proposal calls for permanent logs of archived recordings that can be searched easily.

The point of using bodycams is to increase transparency and accountability for police in order to build public trust. If police withhold bodycam video or erect hurdles to access, these purposes are defeated. The recent civil unrest growing out of police shootings shows where that leads.