Videotapes of arrests made by police officers and sheriff deputies no longer should be considered secret, an Oklahoma appellate court ruled Friday.
“It’s a good day for the citizens and a good day for the press that helps keep the citizens informed,” said Josh D. Lee, a Vinita attorney who filed a lawsuit in Rogers County three years ago seeking videotapes taken from a dashcam mounted in a city of Claremore police cruiser. “It is the most accurate reflection of what actually occurred. Unfortunately, too often, I will read police reports and then I’ll go watch videotapes and what the police reports say happen didn’t happen the way they say it did.
“The only thing that is the saving grace for the citizen accused is to have an actual recording,” he said.
“This is a victory of the public’s right to know and for common sense,” said Joey Senat, a media law professor at Oklahoma State University.
“All of these dashcam videos do is tell the truth and the facts about the arrest,” said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association. “No law enforcement agency should be afraid of that.”
Dashcam policies vary
The ruling by the Oklahoma Court of Civil appeals does not affect video taken by Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers. An Oklahoma County District Court judge also ruled in 2005 that patrol video of arrests should be open to the public, but the state Public Safety Department since then succeeded to get legislation passed that specifically exempted troopers from turning over videotapes.
Phil Cotten, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group’s board of directors will likely discuss the opinion during their annual conference later this month.
“If there’s nothing to hide, there’s nothing to hide,” said Cotten, who retired as Norman’s police chief two years ago. “Most of the recordings that I had reviewed over the years supported the officer the vast majority of the time.”
Police department policies on the release of dashcam videos vary, Thomas said. Some, such as Oklahoma City, don’t have cameras mounted on police cruisers.
Mark Myers, spokesman for the Oklahoma County sheriff’s office, said several of the department’s cruisers are equipped with dashcams.
“Barring something that was considered investigative in nature, we’ve generally always released our dashcam videos and pursuits or whatever had been requested of us,” Myers said.
Lee, a former Vinita police officer, said the city of Claremore at one time turned over video copies of arrests. But in recent years, the police department developed a policy that the videos were not subject to Oklahoma’s Open Records Act and those wanting a video would have to make the request with the Rogers County district attorney’s office.
The district attorney’s office released copies of the video, he said.
“But the problem is they can only give me what they’re aware of,” Lee said. “They can only give me what they’ve been given. Say, there’s two or three different police cars on scene …. Claremore will choose which videotape to give to the DA to give to me but there might be other videotapes available.”
‘Video is a record’
Lee filed a lawsuit in Rogers County District Court, saying the video falls under the Open Records Act; the judge upheld the city’s policy, ruling that dashboard camera video is a direct piece of evidence and does not fall under the Open Records Act.
Lee appealed, and the Court of Civil Appeals ruled 2-1 that video of someone’s arrest “constitutes a public record subject to inspection under the Open Records Act.”
“The dash cam video at issue here is a recording created by and under the authority of public officials in connection with the transaction of public business,” wrote Judge Robert Bell in the majority opinion. “Thus, the arrest video is a ‘record’ as defined by the Act.”
Lee said he is concerned city police departments will approach lawmakers about giving them the same exemption that troopers have.
“There will be some sort of an amendment that they’ll try to run up the pole to legislate this opinion to be ineffective and it to be pointless,” he said. “I hope that it doesn’t pass.”