Effective earlier this month, Ohio now has specific statutory language detailing what portions of police body camera and dash board camera footage are exempt from public access. While the new provisions aren’t perfect, they’re not all that bad and they should provide some clarity for local police departments.
The new language lays out several items that are restricted from public access. What this means is that the new language presumes that the footage is publicly accessible, unless a specific portion is expressly exempt. That is a good thing. There are, however several restricted items that seem unnecessary to me and are inconsistent with the goal of transparency. For example, consider these exempted categories:
(n) A personal conversation unrelated to work between peace officers or between a peace officer and an employee of a law enforcement agency;
(o) A conversation between a peace officer and a member of the public that does not concern law enforcement activities;
I can see the argument in favor of these provisions — if it’s not part of the official duties of the police, it shouldn’t be publicly available. But the flip side of that argument is that the restriction potentially shields from public view comments that are harassing, sexist, racist or otherwise inappropriate. That doesn’t seem like a very transparent policy.
And think about these provisions:
(c) The death of a peace officer, firefighter, paramedic, or other first responder, occurring while the decedent was engaged in the performance of official duties . . .;
(f) Grievous bodily harm to a peace officer, firefighter, paramedic, or other first responder, occurring while the injured person was engaged in the performance of official duties . . . .
I understand the concern here – the officer’s family doesn’t want to see the images displayed on the internet. But the death or injury to the officer could result from inadequate training or supervision. And the public has a right to know if that’s the case. The privacy concern could be addressed by allowing public inspection of these images, but not production of a copy.
My favorite part of the new law, however, is at 149.43(H)(2), which says:
If a public office denies a request to release a restricted portion of a body-worn camera or dashboard camera recording, as defined in division (A)(15) of this section, any person may file a mandamus action pursuant to this section or a complaint with the clerk of the court of claims pursuant to section 2743.75 of the Revised Code, requesting the court to order the release of all or portions of the recording. If the court considering the request determines that the filing articulates by clear and convincing evidence that the public interest in the recording substantially outweighs privacy interests and other interests asserted to deny release, the court shall order the public office to release the recording.
This means that a court can order release of footage that is clearly exempted under the terms of the statute, if the public interest justifies it. This is a common sense provision that allows a court to see the forest from the trees. Kudos to the Ohio General Assembly for recognizing this.