Blade editorial: Police video is public

Editorial from the Toledo Blade

Ohio lawmakers appropriately have enacted legislation that brings needed clarity to the question of when police body camera and dashboard camera video is a public record.

Such video is definitely a public record, as asserted by House Bill 425; Gov. John Kasich should waste no time signing the bill into law.

Body-worn and dash cameras are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in police departments in the nation. The Columbus Police Department recorded nearly 90,000 incidents on body and dash cameras in a typical month. That’s a lot of public records.

In November, Toledo police received new body cameras — 311 devices, at a total cost of about $228,000.

Their use has contributed dramatically to public accountability in cases of police accused of using excessive force, while also protecting lawful police behavior.

By passing House Bill 425, with zero “no” votes in the House or Senate, Ohio has made itself a leader in establishing that bodycam and dashcam video is a public record.

The law has many exceptions, in addition to those already found in Ohio’s Public Records Law.

They include images of children in some cases, death and injury that isn’t caused by a law enforcement officer, nude bodies, personal medical information, confidential informants, and other private matter, such as the interiors of businesses and homes that are unrelated to a case against a law enforcement officer.

In Cleveland, a federal monitor overseeing reforms in the Cleveland police department found deficiencies in the department’s policies governing the use of body cameras. Cleveland found in 2015 that the use of cameras contributed to a 40-percent reduction in citizen complaints against officers over a nine-month period. The federal monitor recommended a comprehensive policy, which helped spur this law into enactment.

Co-sponsor Rep. Niraj Antani (R., Miamisburg) noted that the bill doesn’t require police departments to wear body cams or when to turn them on.

The bill supplies police departments with guidelines for transparency, while protecting citizens’ privacy.

It may be that the law will require tweaking, as some of the exceptions may prove excessive, and will result in police spending a lot of time and money editing body camera footage to redact images that can’t be shown.

Backers of this legislation included the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Ohio News Media Association.

Making police camera footage into a public record helps keep public confidence that, if it is being constantly video-recorded, at least it is not kept secret and can be subject to public oversight.

Making camera footage a public record doesn’t mean the public is being monitored any less. It does mean that it isn’t being done secretly.

Ohio’s law helps set a national standard for public accountability and transparency by law enforcement.