From The Plain Dealer Hamilton County officials were within the law to withhold body camera footage for six business days after a University of Cincinnati police officer fatally shot a man during a traffic stop, the state's highest court ruled Tuesday.
But the much-anticipated decision did not address concerns about whether police body camera videos are public records and when they fall under the public records exemption for confidential law enforcement investigation records.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, Associated Press and four southwest Ohio TV stations had sued Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters in July 2015 for failing to immediately release body camera footage from the shooting of Cincinnati resident Samuel DuBose.
Deters withheld the video out of concern for the officer's right to a fair trial. But two days after the suit was filed, a grand jury indicted officer Ray Tensing and Deters released the video.
The Ohio Supreme Court, in a 7-0 opinion, found the delay was reasonable under state public records law, which does not set an exact time frame for when records must be made available. The court denied statutory damages and attorney fees to the news organizations.
"Because the prosecutor was entitled to review the video to determine whether any redaction was necessary and produced the body-camera video six business days after it was initially received by his office, we conclude that he responded in a reasonable period of time," Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote for the majority.
Deters said the decision should put to rest the news organizations' belief that the video should have been released immediately.
"This is an important victory for law enforcement and our entire community in that it lets the prosecutor do his job to investigate cases before material is released to the media potentially jeopardizing future prosecution," Deters said in a statement.
Attorneys for the news organizations argued body camera footage should be treated the same as officer incident reports, which are public records. The court did not address this point in its narrow opinion.
Dennis Hetzel, president and executive director of Ohio Newspaper Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, was pleased the ruling didn't change the presumed openness of body cam videos. But Hetzel said the ruling could embolden agencies to unnecessarily delay releasing records.
The court dismissed the Enquirer, WCPO and WXIX from the case because they never made records requests of Deters. Instead, they had requested the video from the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Police Department or both. Those original requests were made nine days before Deters released the video.
"This ruling could encourage government agencies to play musical chairs with possession of public records when they don't want to release something," Hetzel said. "Particularly given the importance of this video to the public, we believe it should have been released sooner."
Earlier this month, the court ruled police dash camera videos must be made public, but portions can be redacted, in another case brought by the Enquirer.