By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: A Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor’s decision not to release police dash camera video of a Cincinnati police officer’s fatal shooting has renewed debate over two fundamental principles: the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy.
Several weeks ago, the Cincinnati Enquirer, WCPO-TV and several other media outlets in Cincinnati requested the dash cam video of the June 19 shooting of officer Sonny Kim, a 27-year veteran of the Cincinnati police force. The gunman, TrePierre Hummons, 21, was killed during a shootout with police.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters subpoenaed the city of Cincinnati for all copies of the video. Now that it has been turned over him, Deters is refusing to release it to the media, apparently out of sympathy for the officer’s widow. Both Kim’s widow and Hummon’s father sent requests to the Cincinnati Police Department asking that the video not be released.
“I’m holding it because of open records law, but I would be lying if I didn’t tell you it wasn’t out of sympathy for the Kim family,” Deters told radio host Bill Cunningham.
I, for one, empathize with both sides on the issue.
As a member of the press, I understand the need for transparency. In recent months, there have been several high-profile cases of shootings of unarmed black men by police officers in what appeared to be unjustified and unnecessary use of force. Without media and public access to police body and dash camera videos, the incidents may have been dismissed as justifiable shootings by police officers.
The videos, however, showed different stories.
But the problems run far deeper than whether the use of police body and dash cameras better serve the public interest and the greater common good. Often the release of audio and video of police shootings involve innocent bystanders and ordinary citizens impacted by the images contained in the footage.
Should the public’s right to know and media’s right to information outweigh the right to privacy of victims’ family members and the larger community simply because the incidents may have occurred in a public place? If police dashcams are generally considered public records in Ohio and other states, unless they are part of an ongoing investigation, then the media and the public have every right to obtain and scrutinize the video.
The Enquirer made such an argument in an Editor’s note published on Aug. 10 in the paper.
“The shooting of Sonny Kim is no longer under investigation, so it should be available for public review,” the paper’s editors noted. “It’s important that we take seriously our role as a watchdog for the community. Our intention at this point is only to review the video. No decision has been made about broadcasting it or publishing it online.”
Deters says he wants to be transparent but insists there is “nothing short of a court order that would make me release this video and that means nothing short of an order from the Ohio Supreme Court.”
Although the First Amendment recognizes the press and the public’s right to access and obtain government information, the Constitution contains no express right to privacy. But the Bill of Rights reflects the concerns of the framers to protect certain aspects of privacy, from the privacy of the home against demands that it be used to house soldiers to privacy of the person and possessions against unreasonable search and seizure and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The proliferation of video and audio cameras by police officers has state and local officials and law enforcement agencies around the country facing a balancing act: The media’s right to information and the public’s right to know what its government is doing against a basic human right to privacy.
The pager-size cameras that clip onto an officer’s uniform or are worn as a headset record audio and video of the officer’s interaction with the public. Many civic leaders believe the cameras could have an effect on transparency at a time when public trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low.
Yet police officers, government officials and some civil libertarians are ambivalent not only about the use of police cameras but how the videos should be used.
According to the City Paper, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser citing a “respect” for privacy included a provision in a spending bill sent to the City Council last month that would make footage captured by police body cameras exempt from public records laws.
Bowser apparently had second thoughts after the Council threatened to block the measure.
Last week, the Mayor proposed a new plan that would allow private citizens to have access to police interactions with citizens provided they were recorded in outdoor public places, but would still limit access to recording from indoor spaces and private areas, including courtrooms. For the past year, footage from the body cameras of Washington police officers was not available to the public.
Legislation limiting the public’s access to police camera footage is reportedly pending or has passed in several other states, including Iowa and Kansas, according to the Associated Press. The American Civil Liberties Union has also raised privacy concerns about police camera footage and whether a blanket law would result in the release of suicides or cases of domestic violence.
For years, the media has shown restraint, discretionary judgment and acted responsibly in deciding which stories to publish or broadcast, respecting and protecting the privacy of sources and acting in the interests of national security.
There is no reason to believe the media would not exercise similar good judgment in choosing what, whether or when to use sensitive police camera videos. To think otherwise undermines the rights not only of the media but the public it serves.