The Hidden Pitfalls of Police Video

[W]itnesses may be less willing to talk with police officers if they knew the video and audio from the officer’s body camera would be public record.

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Indiana makes most government records available to the public for the asking. The law is formally known as the Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Its more famous federal cousin is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Most public records are, of course, mind-numbingly dull. Using public access laws can lead to strange results. For example, consider Mental Floss’s collection of ridiculous documents obtained through public records requests, which includes an FBI Twitter slang dictionary. I can only imagine how that impacted tweets in the bureau.

@SpecialAgentJones OMG your proposal for this task force had me totes ROTFLOL. #GManProblems.

I’m kidding. This can’t be an actual tweet. It uses the word “your” correctly.

Still, we’ve come to accept that the costs of APRA and FOIA are outweighed by the benefits of public accountability. So whenever someone wants to tinker with public access laws, it’s in our nature to fear that government accountability may suffer.  In that context, some proposed changes to APRA this session in the General Assembly have caused a stir.

Here are the basics of the law as it stands today:

General Rule: Government records are public.

Exception: Agencies have some discretion to decide whether to release certain kinds of records. For example, I.C. 5-14-3-4(b) says that public agencies have the discretion to withhold “investigatory records of law enforcement.”

The law being the law, there are many other exceptions, of course. And even a couple exceptions to this exception–but you get the idea. An agency does not have to disclose an otherwise-public record if it is an “investigatory record.” Although policies can vary, this discretion typically means that videos that are part of an investigation might not be released to the public, or the press, while the investigation is ongoing.

There are good reasons for this. Many videos may show crime victims, who may not want the public attention that comes with a video. Also, witnesses may be less willing to talk with police officers if they knew the video and audio from the officer’s body camera would be public record.

Enter House Bill 1019, which would change the law in a few important ways.  First, it creates a new category of document called a “law enforcement recording,” which includes audio and video from body cameras and dashboard cameras.  Next, it creates a special standard for obtaining this video. This is where it gets a little more complicated. The person in the video can make a request and is entitled to see the video, with his attorney, at least twice, but is not allowed to copy it.  Anyone else who wants to see it must file a petition with the court and prove that (1) releasing the video is in the public interest, (2) no one will be harmed, and (3) there will be no “prejudicial effect” on any existing civil or criminal cases.

House Bill 1019 is now the subject scathing editorials in the Indianapolis Star and other papers, which can be a bit misleading.  With titles like “Police camera footage should remain public,” the editorials might lead the casual reader to presume that such videos are completely available to the public under the current law, which isn’t the case. Yes, HB 1019 would alter the way one requests a law enforcement recording, but even under current law, an agency has the discretion not to make such a record available if it’s an investigatory record.

To be sure, not every law enforcement recording will be an investigative record. If a police cruiser captures several hours of a 4th of July parade where no crimes are alleged to have occurred, that video is likely not an investigatory record and would fall under the general rule allowing public access. But let’s face it, if a video is so uneventful that it’s not part of an investigatory record, no news agency is going to be interested in seeing it.

That’s not to say that HB 1019 doesn’t have some problems:

  1. Identification of requesting party. I’ve seen many police videos. Although the quality has improved greatly in the past decade, it’s not always easy to tell who is in a video. The bill creates a scenario where somebody—probably a Sheriff’s Office or Police Department employee—will have to decide whether the person making the request for a video is the person in the video. In many cases, this will be undisputed, but, as the saying goes, “Hard cases make bad law.”
  1. Cost of compliance. The costs of compliance for both law enforcement and those making requests could be significant. These include the cost of supervising someone who has a right to watch a police video because she is in it, and making sure she doesn’t use her smartphone to make a copy; the cost of redacting material that should not be revealed; the costs of making (or opposing) a written petition to a court and meeting nebulous legal standards like “public benefit.”

In an effort to restore additional accountability, some have suggested expanding the permissible requestors of videos to include journalists. This creates a new problem: putting counties, cities, and towns in the position of determining who is—and who is not—a journalist. Do bloggers count or must a brick-and-mortar television studio or printing press be required? The First Amendment does not elevate the free speech rights of journalists above the rights of citizens, and Indiana’s public access laws should not either.

HB 1019 is currently scheduled to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 24, 2016.

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UPDATE: 2/24/2016 – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the amendment today which would switch the burden of proof to the public agency to withhold the video in any petition to obtain a Law Enforcement Video.