Dispatch editorial: Bring clarity to body cams

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

On Thursday, the state’s largest city started equipping its police officers with body cameras. But Columbus and other cities are still waiting for the state to provide uniform standards for their use.The questions surrounding police body cameras are complex: Which officers should be required to wear them? When can they turn them on or off? And, given that the law has a presumption of openness for public records, what, if any, exceptions should be made to protect the privacy of victims and residents who have contact with officers? Should video of a brutalized rape victim be released? Most people would agree, no. But what about a video of a juvenile? What if that juvenile was Tyre King, the 13-year-old shot dead by Columbus police last year?

Decisions on withholding footage shouldn’t be left to the best intentions — or self-interest — of an individual police department. Residents of one Ohio community deserve the same protections as residents of another. This is a matter for the legislature.

Public demand for police body cameras gathered steam after several high-profile police shootings of black males around the nation. Columbus, as the nation’s 15th-largest city, wasn’t immune to these tragedies. In June, Henry Green, 23, was fatally shot by plainclothes officers who exited from an unmarked car to confront him about a gun he was carrying; and in September, King was shot multiple times as police responded to reports of an armed robbery. The cameras, proposed by Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther long before those shootings, became a priority.

The first 12 Columbus officers got the clip-ons last week. While 1,432 officers will be equipped with the body cameras, the city started with its traffic division — for the reason that they rarely go into homes, sidestepping complex privacy concerns about who gets to see these videos.

Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs said the city is hopeful that the legislature will soon develop exemptions to public-records laws that would allow them to shield private spaces from public viewing.

Whatever exemptions are created should be limited and narrow. The presumption under Ohio law is that police recordings are public records. In a ruling last month, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously found that police dashboard-camera videos are public records. It then follows that video recorded by a camera attached to an officer's uniform should be treated likewise.

“If one of the stated goals of having these body cameras is to increase transparency and accountability, that’s not going to be accomplished if it’s too easy to say, ‘No, you can’t have it,’ ”said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association. “That would be bad policy. And the police, if anything, will lose credibility if it’s all too easy to restrict access to it.”

To guide Ohio to a thoughtful, statewide body-camera policy, Hetzel and the association have put together a set of policies that balance public access with privacy concerns (http://bit.ly/1UJAZ5z).

This isn’t just a Columbus issue. These body cameras are likely to show up as routine equipment throughout the state, to protect officers against false claims and to protect residents against improper use of force. They represent a new way of policing, and a substantial investment for taxpayers; the cost to Columbus is more than $9 million over five years.

The legislature, having failed to take action on a camera-policy bill last year, is now in a position of playing catch-up. It should do so.