Cameras help Americans hold their police officers accountable. They’re found on the dashboards of many police cars and increasingly worn by officers themselves as they interact with the public. But who gets to see all those hours of footage? In most situations in Ohio, anyone who wants to, a court recently ruled.
The case involved a driver who who was weaving in and out of highway lanes. When the Ohio State Highway Patrol tried to pull him over, the driver sped off, leading to a high-speed police chase and arrest. A newspaper sought the dashboard footage of the entire hour-long incident. The police denied the request, arguing the footage was an “investigative work product.” The newspaper sued for access.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that police had to provide to the public all except the apprehension and arrest of the driver — a small portion of the tape.
“Our review of the recordings at issue here leads us to conclude that a 90-second portion of the recordings contains specific investigatory work product, but the remainder does not,” the court said.
— Ohio Supreme Court (@OHSupremeCourt) December 6, 2016
In the U.S., most policing functions are controlled by the states, and all 50 states are working to balance police transparency against citizens’ right to privacy. The laws for body cameras and dashboard cameras vary widely from state to state.
“We have to be smart about how the information is shared,” said Sam Dotson, the chief of police in St. Louis, raising concerns about inadvertently violating innocent people’s privacy.
“I think body cameras have a role in law enforcement, and I think they are here to stay.”
Police Chief Sam Dotson
Dashboard and body cameras won’t be the easy solution some imagine to finding the right-and-wrong of policing, said Art Acevedo, the new police chief of Houston.
When the general public looks at video of shootings involving police, Acevedo said, “You have a percentage of the people who say, ‘We don’t see how that’s justified’ and you have people who say, ‘We don’t see what the problem is.’ People look at things through the lens of their own values or background, or their own experiences or their own understanding of the law.”
But the Ohio ruling makes clear, when it comes to monitoring the interactions of police and citizens, that state is prioritizing transparency.
From Acevedo’s point of view, that transparency serves police and the people they serve. “We’ve had in-car cameras for years now. And if I tried to take them out of the cars, the officers would go nuts,” he said. “A healthy police department absolutely supports body cameras.”