The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has declared that city police dashboard camera videos are subject to release under Oklahoma's Open Records Act. This marks a good day for government transparency. Now if only the state Department of Public Safety would embrace the cause.
The Claremore case sprang from 2011 efforts by defense attorneys to obtain videotape and audiotape of the arrest of a client charged with drunken driving. The city balked, arguing the videotape was evidentiary and could therefore be kept confidential. The state Court of Civil Appeals didn't buy that argument and overruled a lower court, declaring “no such exemption” exists in the Open Records Act.
This is common sense. Police have nothing to fear from releasing video of lawful arrests. If anything, it strengthens their case. In the words of Phil Cotten, director of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, “If there's nothing to hide, there's nothing to hide.”
If only DPS shared that attitude. After a court ruled highway troopers' dash camera videos were open records in 2005, DPS officials successfully lobbied to have the recordings exempted from open records laws. In 2009, they used that exclusion to initially refuse to release video of an embarrassing encounter between a trooper and a Creek Nation paramedic.
Highway patrols in other states aren't so protective. In Arkansas, Texas and Missouri, the release of dash cam video is routine after an investigation has been completed, a case has reached the initial court stages, or a case has been adjudicated. In Ohio, the state highway patrol has even posted dash cam videos on the Internet.
Oklahoma doesn't have to be an outlier. There's no reason for law enforcement officials to operate under two sets of rules — one embracing transparency and another maintaining a veil of secrecy. Nothing undermines public trust in law enforcement like a policy indicating law enforcement distrusts the general public.