Blade editorial: Let’s see dash-cam videos

Editorial from The Blade State troopers’ dashboard-camera recordings are public records and must be released, but they can be redacted, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last week.

To promote the trust both law enforcement and the community rely on, these recordings should be available to the public with minimal redaction.

The case concerned video of a Highway Patrol chase and its aftermath.

The law says a “device” that documents the work of a state agency is a record, “regardless of physical form,” the court said. And dash-cams record the work of state law-enforcement officers. So the videos are public records.

But the court also held that some dash-cam video can be withheld under the records law’s exception for “specific investigatory work product.” That exception, the court explained, is meant to make sure investigators can “gather, assemble, and prepare case information and theories ‘without undue and needless interference.’” Not all dash-cam footage that contains “potential evidence” is exempt, according to the court. But some is.

In this case, the court ruled that one bit of video, in which a trooper reads a suspect his rights and questions him, is exempt. The trooper conducted the interrogation away from public view, the court notes, and reading the suspect his rights reflected her intent to gather statements that could be used at trial. That made that 90-second excerpt work product that the government didn’t have to release.

The court is right that investigators must be able to gather evidence and theorize without undue interference. But dash-cam videos aren’t the troopers’ private notes. They show troopers’ interactions with suspects and other citizens, which the public has an interest in seeing. We would not want the police to refrain from taking notes they wouldn’t want the public to read. But we also do not want them to treat suspects in ways they wouldn’t want the public to see.

Law-enforcement agencies need the public to trust them in order to do their job. And the community needs law enforcement to do its job to keep us safe. When the community can observe troopers’ work through their dash-cams, that contributes to the trust the troopers and the people they serve both need.

The Ohio Supreme Court is the final authority on what existing Ohio laws mean. But the General Assembly can change those laws. It should do so and make all police dash-cam footage available to the public unless an investigation would be compromised. This ruling was a step in the right direction. But the legislature should take another step.