Opinions vary for Okla. cops on dash, body cameras
Everything being recorded adds an element of liability - both to the officers and to the people they are protecting
By Rhett Morgan
Tulsa World, Okla.
TULSA, Okla. — Whether mounted inside a car or attached to a uniform, police video cameras are taking images at an unprecedented rate.
In 2009, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper's dash cam caught portions of a scuffle between the trooper and a Creek Nation paramedic. In June 2011, police video captured an Owasso officer elbowing the face of a handcuffed inmate. Last summer, lapel video from a Rogers County Sheriff's deputy disputed allegations that officers had mistreated a stranded motorist.
And in February, Owasso police body cameras showed the field sobriety tests of an Owasso city councilor-vice mayor, who after being told he was being arrested was instead driven home.
If a recent state appellate court opinion holds, such exposure could grow.
Reversing a decision by a Rogers County judge, the state Court of Civil Appeals ruled in May that a dash-cam video made by Claremore police of a DUI arrest in 2011 contains facts concerning the arrest and is public under the state Open Records Act.
The city of Claremore has petitioned the Oklahoma Supreme Court, asking it to review the decision.
"I'm not trying to be coy or provide a lack of transparency," Claremore Police Chief Stan Brown said in a telephone interview. "I base my administration on my mission statement, which includes accountability. I want us to be accountable. But I'm not just accountable to the people that request the information. I'm accountable to the people that I'm supposed to be protecting, too."
Attorneys seeking the police video records of a client sued the city of Claremore in May 2011, alleging that the municipality violated the Open Records Act in refusing to provide requested videotapes and audiotapes from the arrest of Richard Stangland, a 22-year-old Claremore man who was charged in March of that year with aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol.
Arguing for the release of the records, counsel representing Stangland said then that audiotapes and videotapes are covered by the Open Records Act. Matt Ballard, who represents the city, told the court that videotapes are evidentiary and subject to the privilege of confidentiality.
Overturning a ruling by Associate District Judge Sheila Condren, the appellate court found that the trial court's claiming the video is exempt because it could be used as evidence in a subsequent criminal prosecution is "without legal support."
The Claremore Police Department has 30 dash-cam units and is using two body cameras that are in the testing and review stage.
Brown contends that some dash-cam video contains information that is otherwise protected by law, such as details about a juvenile or a person's medical history.
"Part of the integrity of the evidence is based on the fact that (the video) can't be manipulated," he said. "Therefore, I don't have the ability to redact certain personal, private information on those videos. Based on this appellate situation, what am I supposed to do?
"There has to be a mechanism under further review of the courts or a more in-depth finding from the courts that relieves me, law enforcement, from that potential liability ... I think we've raised more questions with this appellate court decision than we've answered," Brown said.
Joey Senat, associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University and an expert in media law, said the privacy rules in HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) don't apply to law enforcement records.
"... To claim that HIPPA exempts arrest reports is nonsense," he said in an emailed response to the newspaper. "If the juvenile arrest report would be exempted, then so would the video of that arrest.
"Embarrassment is not exemption under the Open Records Act. Being arrested is not a private moment. It's public. In fact, an arrest is made on behalf of the public. No right of privacy outweighs the public's need to know how its police perform an arrest.
"Keeping these videos open to the public protects both the officer and the public. Public access to dash-cam recordings of arrests protects police officers from false allegations of misconduct and provides those arrested, and the public, with evidence of actual abuse."
The city of Owasso two years ago sank about $50,000 into body camera systems for its police officers, Police Chief Scott Chambless said. Since then, the investment has thrust the department into the public eye.
Police used the body-cam video of excessive force used by Lt. Michael Denton to fire the officer in 2011. The Tulsa World later obtained that video through an open records request, as it did the Feb. 1 body-cam videos taken of the traffic stop of Owasso city councilor Chris Kelley, who was driven home by police after first being told he was arrested for DUI.
Last month's release of the Kelley videos preceded the June 25 resignation of Owasso City Manager Rodney Ray, who, according to an internal memo, ordered the deletion of the video in April. The Tulsa World has made an open records request for police video related to unrelated criminal charges against Ray, but Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris told the newspaper he would attempt to block that request.
Chambless said the video evidence can reduce litigation costs and complaints about police from the public.
"Rather than have the, if you will, 'he said, she said,' we can go directly to the film oftentimes without ever having to talk to the officer because it's readily available on our desktops," he said in a phone interview.
The police chief said officers largely have embraced the technology.
"The culture is that when they (cameras) are there, the vast majority of the time they exonerate an officer," he said. "They recognize that it's a good program."
But he worries that because of ramifications of the appellate court ruling, some people may be reluctant to summon police for fear of what might reach the public domain.
"I think you're dealing with a little bit of a different dynamic when you're dealing with public corruption or public officials who might get involved in something," Chambless said. "But on your day-to-day issues, we don't want to discourage people from calling us. In the event that we are allowing an unfettered access to all the files we have, we are going to discourage people from calling us in the first place."
Bryce Lair, First Assistant District Attorney for Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties, said he has personally lobbied law enforcement agencies to expand their use of police video recordings to protect against bogus civil liability claims against officers, ensure the best collection and preservation of evidence and protect the civil rights of defendants.
"From the district attorneys' viewpoint, the most useful thing about video is that it is the best evidence we normally can get," he said in an emailed statement to the newspaper. "But we have also seen numerous instances of police officers being accused of committing bad acts that were exonerated by their videos and also instances where a suspect's statement or action was inaccurately reported and later clarified by video."
Lair said the DA's office gives defendants' attorneys full access to the evidence it has against their clients.
"But there are times when the district attorney's office does not receive all of the evidence in a case, whether it be from oversight or other reasons," he said. "An Open Records Act request is one way for the defendant to go directly to the law enforcement agency to obtain all the evidence against them, which makes sense in many ways."
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