EDITORIAL: Secret footage? Legislature headed wrong way on police videos

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When they convene this month, state lawmakers will consider whether to make massive amounts of police data off-limits to the public.

Doing so would be a mistake.

At issue is Senate File 32, sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee and titled, “Peace Officer Recordings.”

In a nutshell, the bill says that if a video is recorded by a police camera that’s mounted to an officer’s body or vehicle, that footage will not be turned over to the public unless someone goes to court and convinces a judge there’s a “compelling public interest”

to do so.

To hear one lawmaker tell it, you might think that’s no big deal.

“... I think it’s as easy as filing the paperwork to say, ‘Judge, the actions are in the public’s interest,’” Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, recently told the Casper Star-Tribune. “I wouldn’t think it would be that hard.”

Actually, the Powell Tribune can say from experience that it can be much more difficult.

Last year, this newspaper requested a copy of a video from the City of Cody. The 2010 footage — captured by a surveillance camera mounted on the side of the Cody Law Enforcement Center — shows Cody’s then-assistant police chief, George Menig, strip searching and Tasering a handcuffed man who’d threatened to “blow things up.” The incident takes place in the middle of a public street.

(That man, Juan Flores, later sued Menig for excessive force and received a $16,000 settlement from the state of Wyoming last year.)

Cody leaders refused to turn over the footage of the incident.

“I think the officers’ privacy interest outweighs the public interest in the video,” Cody City Attorney Scott Kolpitcke wrote in denying the request for the video.

The Tribune considered filing a petition in district court and asking a judge to order Cody officials to turn over the footage; those plans cooled, however, upon getting an initial estimate that put the potential cost of an attorney in the neighborhood of $3,000.

Those kinds of four-figure bills are the high barriers that Christensen and the judicial committee would put in front of anyone who wants to review nearly any police activity that’s captured on video.

We understand lawmakers’ overarching concerns about privacy with body cameras — about people who may be captured on video going about their day-to-day business or in an embarrassing, but not criminal situation; about calls that involve officers going into a person’s home, or other places where people have an expectation of privacy. We agree with the general idea that someone should show how the public’s interest surpasses a person’s privacy before getting access to footage from those types of situations.

But Senate File 32 tips the scales way too far toward secrecy.

Police are given an immense amount of power, and with that power should come great accountability. When officers’ conduct comes into question, the public should be able to review their actions without the expense and hassle of a court fight.

Further, is there any particularly good reason why an officer’s written description of, say, a high-speed chase, is fair game for the public, but the dashboard camera video of the encounter is not? Doesn’t video footage offer a certain objectivity and perspective that written accounts can’t?

In a day and age when anyone can videotape and edit anything, we’d argue that footage captured by police can be even more important — helping paint a more complete picture of an incident than a bystander’s might on its own.

While body cameras are new and present a different set of challenges for lawmakers and police, let’s remember that dashboard cameras and recordings have been around (and sometimes made available to the public) for many years. Perhaps some clarification is needed as to what types of footage are private, but why suddenly decide that everything captured by those cameras should be off-limits? Where’s the evidence that such a wholesale shift toward secrecy is needed?

Also consider that the approach being put forward by the judiciary committee effectively amounts to the Legislature deciding it knows better than local police about what information should be released to the public; the draft provides local agencies with no flexibility to release body camera or dashboard camera footage.

If lawmakers feel greater protections are needed for the public, why not treat the footage like some other government records, where they’re available to the public unless the disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”? After all, as the City of Cody has demonstrated, that language can easily be stretched to withhold records and dissuade information-seekers.

That’s why the judiciary committee’s proposed version Senate File 32 is such overkill.

Maybe the bill will be amended into a better one, or end up in the 2017 scrap heap of failed legislation — Christensen told the Star-Tribune it’s “far from a done deal” — but frankly, it’s disappointing that such a wrongheaded approach made it this far.

Editor's note: This version removes incorrect information stating that Christensen was in the final days of his term. In actuality, his current four-year term runs through 2018.

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