The Stillwater Police Department doesn’t use body cameras because video of officers responding to domestic violence calls must be released under the state Open Records Act, the department’s spokesman told a Citizen’s Academy on Tuesday.
However, the statute allows police to “redact or obscure specific portions” that would “identify alleged victims of sex crimes or domestic violence.” (Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 24A.8(A)(10)(b)(8))
That is among a long list of exemptions legislators created in 2015 for police body and dashboard camera video.
But that didn’t stop Stillwater police Capt. Kyle Gibbs from blaming public access to government records for the department not using body cameras on officers, according to the Stillwater News Press.
From the newspaper’s coverage of the inaugural meeting of the Citizen’s Academy:
During this, one participant asked whether SPD had considered or was in the process of acquiring body cameras for officers to use while on duty. Capt. Kyle Gibbs brought up the complications SPD could potentially run into thanks to Oklahoma’s Open Records Act.
“Oklahoma is what they call a ‘Sunshine state’ – everyone could file for the footage,” Gibbs said. “Let’s say there was a domestic disturbance of your next-door neighbor, and you were curious what was going on, so you went and requested the body-cam footage from the officers who responded?
“Well, that might be a privacy concern for that neighbor – ethically we wouldn’t want to give it, but legally we would have to. So until Oklahoma can get some open records issues straightened out, many other departments in Oklahoma have taken this stance, we won’t get any body cams.”
I’m told that Gibbs also blamed the time it takes to redact footage, telling academy participants that editing dashboard camera footage of the 2015 OSU homecoming crash took 200 man-hours.
The Open Records Act permits agencies to “redact or obscure specific portions” of recordings from body and dashboard cameras that depict “the death of a person or a dead body” unless the death was caused by an officer, or severe violence resulting in great bodily injury as well as the bodily injury itself.
But how often is the Stillwater Police Department likely to encounter the number of deaths and injuries at one scene as it did at the homecoming crash? Weigh that against the good that comes from publicly available body camera footage of officers doing their jobs.
Perhaps the Stillwater City Council should require that the department use body cameras. All five members have signed FOI Oklahoma’s Open Government Pledge in which they promised to “support at every opportunity” the public policy that “the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”
In the meantime, if Citizen’s Academy participants and others would like to know more about the Open Records Act’s application to police records, FOI Oklahoma has this training video for law enforcement agencies.
And, btw, Oklahoma isn’t the only “sunshine state.” Every state has a statute guaranteeing the public access to government records.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, its board of directors or the commentator’s employer. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.