Editorial: Police body cameras are here, law should catch up

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

The process of equipping all Columbus police officers with body cameras appears to be going relatively smoothly and ahead of schedule, and that’s a credit to the department and the officers.

Meanwhile, we hope the General Assembly will move as purposefully to pass legislation which aims to clarify that video from police body cameras is a public record, while establishing some exceptions.

Current law isn’t clear, and the Ohio Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case in which the Cincinnati Enquirer is challenging the city of Cincinnati’s refusal to release bodycam video from an Aug. 8 incident in which an officer used a Taser on a suspect.

We live in a world in which cameras are everywhere, and bystanders’ video has been the basis of numerous complaints of police brutality. Having an official video record from an officer’s perspective is a good insurance policy, both for the public and for officers.

City officials expected the full rollout of about 1,300 body-mounted cameras to take until the end of this year, but now they expect all of them to be in place by the end of June.

It isn’t a simple matter of clipping a camera onto each officer. The city had to buy server space to store the video and run fiber-optic cable to police substations so the video can be uploaded. To its credit, the city has budgeted for additional employees to handle requests from the public to see bodycam footage.

The primary benefit of body cameras is to afford the public a view of how police officers do their jobs. If there’s not an efficient system in place to make that happen, they’re far less valuable.

House Bill 425 states clearly that body-camera video is public and establishes a process for anyone who is denied access to body-camera video to file a mandamus action in the Ohio Supreme Court challenging the denial. Rep. Hearcel Craig, a Columbus Democrat, is a primary sponsor of the bipartisan legislation along with Rep. Niraj Antani, a Miamisburg Republican.

The bill, which has yet to receive a hearing, allows some exceptions, but they’re generally narrow and reasonable. Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association and as such an advocate for transparency, said the bill is better than many other states’ laws regarding body-camera video.

Police officers deserve some credit for adapting to the cameras with minimal fuss.

Even though the cameras ultimately protect good cops by disproving any false claims of police misbehavior, getting accustomed to having one’s every public interaction recorded must be a challenge.

Officer Joseph Bogard learned that the hard way when he faced a public backlash and earned a written reprimand in September after body cameras recorded him talking big to other officers about how roughly he would have handled a difficult suspect who was just arrested.

In a report on the incident, a sergeant wrote that, while Bogard’s comments were insensitive, officers often use “crude humor and crass language to cope with the stress of being involved in dangerous and traumatic incidents such as this.”

Further, he said, “Officers are adjusting to the shrinking number of venues in which they can process and de-stress in an authentic and real manner.”

That shrinking is a price officers are paying for body cameras.

But for them and for the public, the transparency and fairness cameras offer are worth it.