Police camera footage at issue in high-profile records case

Whether the public has a right to see footage captured by police body cameras and cruiser dash cams will be argued before the Ohio Supreme Court next week.

Two high-profile public records cases from Hamilton County will be heard by the court.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters rejected requests by the Cincinnati Enquirer for access to footage of a body camera worn by a university police officer Ray Tensing when he shot and killed a motorist Samuel DuBose on July 19 and footage from a patrol cruiser’s dash-mounted video camera that documented a high-speed chase and arrest.

Deters and the Ohio Attorney General’s office argued that the camera records are exempt from disclosure because they’re confidential law enforcement investigatory records.

The newspaper and five other media outlets are asking the state Supreme Court to deem such police records open to immediate public inspection. Deters’ office withheld the DuBose shooting footage for nine days.

The Enquirer filed suit against the Ohio Department of Public Safety after it withheld dash-cam footage from a January 2015 chase and arrest of a motorist on Interstate 71 by the state Highway Patrol.

The media outlets are arguing that bodycam and dashcam footage is akin to 911 calls and initial incident reports, which can kick off an investigation but aren’t investigatory in nature.

The attorney general and county prosecutor’s office say that’s not so. Often officers turn on their cameras at the start of investigating, the argue. Deters also noted that he released the DuBose shooting footage to the public in a reasonable time frame.

The government side of the case is arguing that there should be a case-by-case consideration of the circumstances of each records request, rather than an all or nothing rule.

The cases have much broader implications as more police departments employ body cameras and dash cams.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association filed a brief siding with Deters. “There is undoubtedly a distinction between the public’s right to know, and the public right to immediately know. The media’s desire to have information immediately must be balanced with appropriate functions of the criminal justice system,” the association said in its brief.