About three years ago, as the debate over the use and regulation of police-worn cameras exploded across the country, two things quickly became obvious to us at the Ohio News Media Association.
First, it was inevitable that the Ohio Legislature would respond.
Why? Bodycams became central to calls for greater accountability and transparency by the police. However, the cameras raise issues of personal privacy that are understandable and often highly emotional. Given those factors, we concluded legislation was a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Second, because we have been in this movie too many times before with open records laws, we decided we would need to act instead of react to avoid a really bad result.
Early policies that emerged from some Ohio police agencies reinforced the point, as some departments around the state adopted local policies – in violation of existing law – that recordings only would be released at the discretion of the chief. Meanwhile, we grew more alarmed as other states codified that principle into law, making body-camera recordings closed, only available for release if the government chose to do so.
We made many rounds at the Statehouse and went to a lot of meetings. (We particularly thank the Columbus Police Department for listening to us as part of their thoughtful process.) Everywhere we went, we emphasized the importance of the presumption of openness that is supposed to attach to all public records. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other public record in which transparency, access and accountability is more important. We urged that any new exemptions be written as narrowly as possible. We worked with police groups, prosecutors, public defenders, the ACLU and many other groups along the way. We noted that the issues raised by the cameras are unusual but not unique. Existing laws to protect investigations, informant identities and other police matters already have broad exemptions under Ohio law.
This week, “when” became “now” when Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, and Rep. Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, introduced a bipartisan bill to regulate police-worn cameras.
The bill mainly reflects about two years of work led by Rep. Antani. It’s a strong effort to balance privacy interests with the critical need to have the accountability and transparency that only open records can create.
Under the bill, for example, videos related to officers’ use of force will be generally available as well most police enforcement activity in public places. Exemptions are mainly tied to recordings made in private homes or the private areas of businesses and those that show nudity, serious injuries, fatalities that don’t involve first responders and victims of sex crimes and domestic violence.
Rep. Antani responded to several of our objections. For example, an earlier draft would have allowed an entire recording to be exempt if it showed a juvenile at any point in the recording. We particularly like his addition of a procedure in which you can petition a court to rule that the public interest outweighs the privacy interest in an exemption.
The bill doesn’t tell local police departments they have to use body cameras, but it does give them rules of engagement if and when they use them. Most importantly, it blocks local end runs to the open records law and reinforces the presumption of openness.
House Bill 425 still has a long way to go. Amendments of all sorts are possible, and we probably will suggest some as well. It’s never easy for us to support bills that add new secrecy to an open records law already bloated with exemptions – some truly unnecessary; others badly written.
Still, we think this is an example of something the public deserves to see more often in politics: A solid, thoughtful bill made possible by legislators who took the time to grasp a complex issue and hear from all sides. If it becomes law as written, journalists who cover law enforcement in Ohio will continue to have access to important, critical information that colleagues in some other states unfortunately lack.
Dennis Hetzel is the executive director the Ohio News Media Association.