Saturday, June 13, 2009

OHP releases dashboard camera video

Late Friday, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol released the dashboard camera video showing a scuffle between a trooper and a Creek Nation paramedic. An OHP spokesman said "it was in the best interest of the public" to release the video.

The OHP had repeatedly denied reporters access to the video during the week even though the public interest was just as obvious then.

Perhaps the video was released because a cell phone video of the incident had been posted on YouTube.

Why are OHP dashboard camera videos not considered public records? Because, as an earlier posting on this blog explained, state Department of Public Safety officials persuaded legislators to block public access in 2005.
(OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.3(1)(h)(1-3) (effective Nov. 1, 2005))

That came after
an Oklahoma County district judge had barred OHP "from keeping videotapes of traffic arrests secret.” (Nolan Clay, Highway patrol ordered to stop withholding tapes, THE OKLAHOMAN, Mar. 3, 2005, at A6)

Public Safety Commissioner Kevin Ward believes in transparency, an OHP spokesman said this week. That comment came after the Oklahoma County district attorney received an internal OHP investigation
into claims that Ward and an OHP official had patrol helicopter pilots take them, friends and family members on personal rides.

If Ward and other DPS and OHP officials believe in transparency, that would be a welcomed change. In the past, DPS officials have successfully sought statutory exemptions blocking public access to records.

In May 2005, legislators specifically exempted DPS records relating to “training, lesson plans, teaching materials, tests, and test results;” tactical policies, procedures and operations; and from radio logs, any telephone numbers, personal information protected by the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act and “addresses other than the locations of incidents to which officers are dispatched.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(G)) (effective Nov. 1, 2005)).

The exemptions were a compromise between DPS and the Oklahoma Press Association. DPS originally sought to keep secret a number of records the Tulsa World had won access to during a three-year court battle with the agency.

In February 2005, an Oklahoma County district judge had ordered DPS to release “a list of documents and computerized data including records concerning the use of force by state troopers, a database of police dog searches, a list of lawsuits and other legal actions involving the agency.” (Marie Price, House gets bill on data access, TULSA WORLD, Mar. 13, 2005, at A19. See also Ziva Branstetter, Judge orders OHP parent agency to give records to World, TULSA WORLD, Feb. 5, 2005, at A13)

As originally drafted, the subsequent legislation would have limited public access to only single-incident reports and not sets of computer data that could be used to determine demographic or other law enforcement trends.

If Ward truly now believes in transparency, perhaps he would support legislative efforts to reverse the exemptions, starting with making all OHP dashboard camera video available to the public.

It was a mistake for the Legislature to hide those records from the public. Perhaps the 11 House members who have signed FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge will attempt next session to strip away the statutory shroud of secrecy wrapped around the DPS and OHP in 2005. The public should expect them to do so.

By Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism and Broadcasting
"Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma"
joey.senat@okstate.edu


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