By Jack Greiner, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer A lawyer friend of mine, Steve Zansberg, recently published an opinion piece in Government Technology magazine which discusses both the benefits of making police body camera footage public and the negative consequences of not doing so. It’s a thoughtful and well-reasoned argument.
Steve uses this analogy: “Imagine if Congress had funded the National Institutes of Health to develop an antibiotic to combat a contagious disease. And, using millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, such a drug was created. But then local health-care providers improperly administered it to patients, thereby exacerbating the spread of the infection.”
The point he is making is Congress did indeed allocate money to the implementation of body camera technology: $20 million, which is less than the $75 million President Barack Obama originally requested, but still a significant sum. And it did so following the ugly events in Ferguson, Missouri, where police conduct and accountability were front-page issues. While police body cameras serve many purposes, among them is the notion that recording police/public interactions will help restore public confidence in the work our police perform day in and day out.
We know from the New Testament that it makes no sense to light a lamp and put it under a basket. But that is exactly what’s happening with body camera footage in states across the country. As Steve’s article points out, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina just this year have enacted laws making body camera footage exempt from state Open Records Acts. In Ohio, local prosecutors, with the aid of the attorney general, have advocated before the Ohio Supreme Court for the notion that prosecutors should have complete discretion when and whether to release the footage.
That position is wrong on a multitude of levels. Most wrong is it denies the public the opportunity to see the dangerous job we ask our police to perform and to see that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the police do it courageously and well. Nearly as wrong is the suspicion and distrust it sows. The New Testament actually provides a guide again in John’s Gospel: “men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil. For everyone who practices evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his works be reproved.” It’s human nature – when people try to hide information, we tend to think it’s because the information is damaging to them.
Zansberg’s article contains this illuminating concluding passage:
"Policies that deny public access to body-worn camera recordings are fundamentally counter-productive. They defeat the very purpose for deploying the cameras in the first place. As Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, puts it, 'With certain limited exceptions ... body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request ... because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.' Conversely, withholding the recordings feeds the public's suspicion that there is something to hide."
I couldn’t have said it better myself.