A state lawmaker wants to clarify public access to police body camera videos while restricting their availability to protect privacy.
The bill by Rep. Niraj Antani comes at a time when officers’ conduct is being heavily scrutinized following police involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, and less than a week after five officers were killed and seven others injured by a sniper during a Dallas protest of law enforcement’s use of force.
“I understand this is a very controversial issue with strong feelings about body cameras on both sides,” Antani said. “And we just want to be open and transparent and listen to people and be open to change.”
House Bill 585 calls for all police body camera videos to be public record, but notes exceptions, including those videos taken on private property or involving sex crime victims and juveniles.
Springfield Police Division officers don’t have body cameras, and Chief Stephen Moody said he had not seen the proposed legislation yet, “but this is exactly the conundrum we’ve been dealing with.”
Moody said he is not opposed to new technology, but “there are land mines” that come with cameras. The biggest, he said, is privacy concerns.
“We talk to people hourly that are very private conversations, that are victims,” Moody said, “and we have to be aware of that as a society that not all of that is public record.”
Storage of the video files, and redaction of any of the records, if needed, also concern the chief.
Moody said the Cincinnati police department is taking the lead on rolling out a plan and the deployment of cameras. He wants to see what works there.
“If I don’t have to re-invent the wheel, that’s important too,” Moody said.
Civil liberty proponents Tuesday called the bill “a mixed bag” while public records advocates and the state’s police union said it needs further study.
The Miamisburg Republican’s bill is one of two Ohio proposals in recent months targeting police body cameras use.
The other is HB 407, sponsored by Reps. Kevin Boyce (D-Columbus) and Cheryl Grossman (R-Grove City). It calls for law enforcement agencies to adopt written policies on body cameras and make them publicly available.
With limited time left in the current legislative session, Antani said there is little hope of seriously addressing the issue until the next term.
“We understand there is going to be a lot of public interest in this,” he said. “So we want to introduce it now to begin that dialogue, see what people think. We’re very open to changes to make it a better bill. But I think this is needed.”
Ohio law, he said, does not specifically address police body cam videos as public records, but as “government records.”
“And there are no government records that go into your home with video,” he said. “This is very, very different from a typical government record.”
While the chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio disagreed with Antani, Gary Daniels said “it’s a good thing” the public record language is in the bill.
But the proposal has some exceptions Daniels doesn’t find as palatable. Among them are private records becoming public only after a guilty plea or conviction. That would eliminate videos of what happened with suspects killed by police before an arrest from becoming public record, as he said was the case in Cleveland years ago.
“Perhaps, if those officers were wearing body cameras – if they were in existence at that time, they weren’t….the general public, the media and everybody else might know what actually happened in that bedroom that day,” Daniels said.
“Under Rep. Antani’s bill, that footage would not become public record because there was, after all, no conviction by that person, no plea of guilty by that person,” he added. “Nobody was arrested for anything. Nothing happened with regards to the court system.”
The bill is still being studied by the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, said Director Mike Weinman. He noted the FOP was encouraged by the protections for juveniles and sex crime victims.
The issue is a complex one which will continue to be debated next year, said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
“I’m glad it preserves the presumption of openness. That’s critical,” he said in an email. “The new exemptions seem reasonable in concept, but we need to look at this more closely. The details matter.
“There are a lot of issues involving these cameras, and I think we will be discussing this more in 2017,” he said. “Access and transparency can’t fall by the wayside.”
Allison Wichie contributed to this report.
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