Ohio’s top law enforcement officer just came down on the wrong side of an important question of police transparency.
Attorney General Mike DeWine is urging the state’s highest court to allow prosecutors to withhold police videos recorded by bodycams, the cameras that a growing number of police officers wear on their uniforms.
He’s joined Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters in asking the court to allow law enforcement to keep under wraps what should be a public record.
Both he and Deters are wrong.
And the Ohio Supreme Court should rule in favor of the public’s right to know and reject their arguments.
Here’s why it matters:
The case arises out of the fatal shooting of Sam Dubose. A former University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, is charged with murder in the case. Tensing was wearing a bodycam at the time, so the entire incident, from his traffic stop of Dubose, to the aftermath of the shooting, is captured on video.
WCPO and other local media requested the video to, first, figure out what happened, and second, to share what we learned with the public.
But Deters took control and refused to release it, claiming it was part of an active investigation. For nine days, he sat on the video. Nine days, while memories and images of shootings and deaths at the hands of police in other cities were recalled and played out on TV and online. Nine days, while the facts around the fatal shooting involving a black motorist and a white officer, a shooting that attracted national attention, remained in question.
The video was eventually released, but only when Deters decided to do so, and only after he had arranged a news conference that he led and narrated.
By then, WCPO, The Enquirer and other local news organizations had sued Deters for access. Although the video was released, the lawsuit has gone forward because precedent could be set that will control how and when Ohio law enforcement agencies give the public access to police bodycam videos. This week, DeWine filed a legal brief supporting deters' position.
Police shootings are among the most controversial and emotionally charged events a community can experience. Facts, not rumors, hearsay or one-sided explanations are what people need. Unfortunately, facts are often in short supply.
And video is the most useful tool to figure out what happened and it’s the most useful tool we have to keep a check on law enforcement.
If you doubt law enforcement’s tendency to keep potentially damning video out of the public eye, look at the recent case in Chicago. There, police kept a shooting video tied up in court for three years. When it was finally released, it showed an officer shooting a black man as he ran away unarmed, and it sparked protests.
That’s why the advent of bodycam video is so important to the public’s understanding of exactly what happened during these events.
The public (and the media acting on the public’s behalf) needs quick access as a way to maintain a check on the actions of law enforcement. Police violence and police-community relations are major issues nationwide and certainly are in this community too. Access to bodycam videos, whose use is growing among police agencies, is essential to holding those in power accountable.
Getting access is an entirely different issue than broadcasting or publishing them. Showing them is an ethical decision made by journalists and newsroom managers who take into account the community’s standards, family wishes and other factors.
Access is a purely legal decision. And legally, the public’s access to bodycam videos is really the same as getting access to police cruiser videos, which are usually released, and to recordings of 911 calls and police incident reports, which are routinely released. Prosecutors and police agencies can’t pick and choose which videos they want to release and which they don’t.
Bodycam videos are a new tool that, in DeWine’s own words, “have served both to expose bad apples and to vindicate the good guys in uniform, as well as to convict or vindicate defendants.”
That is precisely why the public needs quick access to them and why the Ohio Supreme Court should rule in favor of the public’s right to know.