AP NEWS

Want To Get A Copy Of That Police Video? Why You Probably Won’t In Pennsylvania

November 27, 2018

Dash camera videos have captured police at their very best and their very worst. They’ve roiled communities in which unarmed suspects were gunned down by officers. They’ve also shown police acting bravely when confronted with the violence that is inevitably part of their jobs.

But in Pennsylvania, the public’s right to those recordings is so restricted as to be virtually nonexistent.

That was the warning open records advocates issued last year when the Legislature voted to exempt police audio and video recordings from the state’s right-to-know law. They cautioned the new rules would all but prevent the public from accessing videos documenting officers’ actions and interactions on their beats.

According to state police records, that is largely what has happened.

In a year since the law took effect in September 2017, Pennsylvania State Police processed 16 requests for recordings made by troopers, but granted just two of them, according to documents obtained by The Morning Call through a right-to-know request.

Those seeking videos included the media, members of the public, insurance companies and law firms. The requests asked for recordings that documented troopers pulling over drunken driving suspects, responding to sometimes fatal accidents or ticketing drivers after traffic stops — among other encounters involving police.

But one by one, the answer was usually no.

Eight of the requests were denied on the grounds the recordings were potential evidence in criminal matters. Five were denied because no videos existed, and one because the record had been expunged by court order.

Of the two videos that were released, one was sent to a Monroe County woman who was cited in September in Polk Twp. for allegedly driving with no headlights, no rearview mirror and obscured plates and windows.

The other involved a Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, man who said he was involved in a commercial vehicle accident in May that troopers responded to.

“Our policy is if it’s a summary traffic (offense) and there’s no, how do you say, criminal element in it, we tend to provide those,” said William Rozier, state police’s open records officer.

While public records advocates say it is good to hear that even a limited number of videos are being released, they call it a far cry from the transparency that some other states demand of their police departments at a time of heightened scrutiny of law enforcement.

“The reason that body and dash camera video is created in the first place is as an accountability tool,” said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a newspaper trade group that opposed the changes. “If there is not public access, there is not accountability.”

The law, known as Act 22, expanded restrictions on the release of police video and eliminated the presumption that they are public records. A request for a recording must be made within 60 days of its production, and police are granted even wider latitude to deny the release of recordings they deem to be part of an investigation.

Under the new language, authorities can keep recordings secret if they contain “potential evidence in a criminal matter” or “information pertaining to an investigation.” The law also changed the appeal process, and those denied videos must sue in court to challenge the decision — instead of turning to the Office of Open Records, an administrative body that oversees the right-to-know law, but is more user-friendly and charges no fee.

Act 22 was part of a push by lawmakers to encourage the use of body and dash cameras, which supporters say improve public trust in law enforcement, assist in investigations and preserve a record that protects officers from unwarranted allegations of misconduct. The law closed a loophole in the state’s Wiretap Act by allowing police to use body cameras in private residences — a critical step for departments interested in equipping their officers.

Supporters say the law’s new restrictions recognize a basic reality: that police recordings are different from other government records, and raise legitimate safety and privacy concerns for police and crime victims.

“The provisions in Act 22 that exempt certain recordings from release to noninvolved parties are crucial for law enforcement to maintain the integrity of criminal investigations,” Ryan Tarkowski, a state police spokesman, said in a prepared statement. “Additionally, they protect the privacy of victims, witnesses and bystanders.”

Many states are grappling with just how publicly accessible police videos should be. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation governing their release.

States such as Connecticut, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas treat the videos as a public record, but provide exceptions — whether to protect police informants, minors or recordings made in “private places,” for instance. South Carolina gives law enforcement the broad discretion to decide whether a recording should be released. Louisiana prohibits the release of footage that violates a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

Act 22 was approved by lawmakers just eight days after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court opened the door for some police videos to be accessible under the right-to-know law.

The 5-2 ruling, issued in June 2017, granted a Centre County woman’s request for recordings of a car crash in which her friend was involved. The justices rejected state police’s claims that all dashboard videos are investigative records exempt from disclosure, finding police had the burden to show on a case-by-case basis why a video shouldn’t be released.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opposed Act 22, saying it failed to strike an adequate balance between transparency and privacy. Elizabeth Randol, the group’s legislative director, said the new law creates a “burdensome,” “cumbersome” and “byzantine” process that undermined the motivation behind the push to equip police with body cameras.

“This bill certainly falls short, dangerously short, of upholding the end of the bargain where police body cameras will be used as an effective tool for police accountability,” Randol said.

AP RADIO
Update hourly