More police body cameras bring public records issues

From The Toledo Blade Government and reporters across Ohio are wading through uncharted technological waters as more body cameras pop up on uniforms amid allegations of police misconduct.

Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, and some other cities have purchased cameras for at least some of their officers despite unresolved questions raised in a Columbus forum Wednesday over what ultimately happens with the resulting footage and where the line should be drawn between police work and individual privacy.

“The bottom line is the public has called for documentation for police actions, and government is responding to that,” Larry James, attorney for the National Fraternal Order of Police said Wednesday during a Columbus Metropolitan Club forum.

Ohio does not mandate that local governments equip their officers with cameras, but a state House committee recently sent House Bill 407 to the full chamber. Sponsored by Reps. Kevin Boyce (D., Columbus) and Cheryl Grossman (R., Grove City), that bill would require cities with such cameras to adopt public policies regarding their use, video record retention, and public records requests.

The House, however, recessed for the summer without taking up the measure.

Last week the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in a pair of cases to resolve the question of whether video from body and dashboard cameras is subject to open records law or is exempted as investigative material.

One case involved a fatal police shooting on the campus of the University of Cincinnati in which the officer was indicted. The other involves dashboard video of a state highway patrol chase on I-71.

In both cases, the videos were ultimately released to the requesting media outlets, but the question remains before the court whether such videos are, in fact, public records.

Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said state lawmakers inevitably will have to deal with such questions.

“What we don’t want to see happen — and some states have done this unfortunately — is to make all this footage presumptively closed and then only release it at the discretion of government,” he said. “That would defeat the goals of accountability and transparency …

“People forget this sometimes, but government is the custodian of public records, not the owner of public records…,” Mr. Hetzel said.

While expectations for privacy largely go out the window once people step outside, what happens to the right of privacy when a police officer wearing a camera walks into a home?

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