MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 27, 2014

Attorneys skeptical of Oklahoma dash-cam video bill

OKLAHOMA CITY — Some attorneys who specialize in obtaining arrest videos from police are concerned that a bill to make Highway Patrol dash-cam videos open to the public could actually have the opposite effect and limit the public’s ability to see the videos.

The bill, which is being touted as a government transparency measure, would end an exemption to the state’s Open Records Act that currently applies only to audio and video recordings of the Department of Public Safety. DPS successfully pushed for the exemption several years ago after a legal flap involving the release of videos, but Highway Patrol officials now say they support making the videos open to public scrutiny.

But the bill has some new exemptions, including videos that depict officers who become subject of an internal investigation, until the investigation is complete.

Josh Lee, of Vinita, who successfully sued the city of Claremore for the release of police arrest videos, said that provision is troubling because it likely would cover videos depicting possible evidence of misconduct by officers. He said a law enforcement agency could stall its investigation to effectively prevent a video from being released.

“In my opinion, that is an exception that swallows the rule. I think it will make the law worse, as far as open government and transparency,” Lee said. “Tasing people who are in handcuffs, officers behaving inappropriately — that’s the stuff that needs to get out there.”

Sen. David Holt, the author of the bill, said he’s sympathetic to Lee’s concerns, although he doesn’t think the exemption will be a problem.

“Quite frankly, it was part of the negotiations to secure Highway Patrol’s endorsement of the bill, which I think has been critical to its success so far,” said Holt, R-Oklahoma City. “Where we are in the process, if I can find a way to address some of those concerns, I’m willing to.”

The bill has already passed the Senate and has been assigned to a House committee.

Mark Thomas, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Press Association, said he’s skeptical a law enforcement agency would delay its investigation just to stall the release of a video to the public.

“If some local police force decides to discipline their officer for years so the tape never becomes public, then the citizens of that community need to demand the finalization of that investigation,” Thomas said.

Steve Fabian, another attorney who specializes in public records, said having the same law enforcement agency conducting the investigation and deciding whether to release the video is “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

“The nice thing about the Open Records Act is that the government doesn’t have a choice. If it’s an open record, we’re entitled to see it, period,” Fabian said. “They can’t use a bunch of excuses to not provide it.”

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