As a growing number of law enforcement use body and dashboard cameras, lawmakers are expected to send a bill to Gov. John Kasich that would ensure the footage, in most circumstances, is a public record.
Sen. Bill Coley, R-Cincinnati, said the bill "strikes a good balance" between protecting legitimate privacy concerns with the public's right to know. "I believe the way we crafted this bill is a good solution to a very difficult problem."
Under House Bill 425, joint sponsored by Rep. Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, body camera and dash cam footage is a public record except in circumstances, including where the footage:
• Identifies an alleged victim of a sex offense, stalking or domestic violence.
• Shows health information, or personal information of someone who is not arrested.
• Shows the interior of a home or business, unless it is the location of an adversarial encounter with an officer.
• Shows an act of severe violence resulting in serious harm to a police officer or first responder.
• Identifies a child who is the primary subject of the recording.
• Records personal or other non-work conversations involving law enforcement.
The bill passed the Senate 31-0 Thursday. Later, the House unanimously concurred with minor amendments made by the Senate.
Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio News Media Association, which regularly battles legislative efforts to restrict access to public records, said the body camera law can be one of the nation’s best.
"It retains the presumption of openness that is essential for transparency and accountability while dealing with the unusual challenges the use of such cameras create involving victim privacy and law enforcement activity," he told lawmakers last month.
George Speaks, deputy director for public safety for the city of Columbus, told lawmakers that the city is using more than 1,200 body cameras that over the prior month resulted in the creation of 65,276 videos. He called the bill "the most-comprehensive and best legislation in the country dealing with public records and body cameras footage," highlighting its effort to balance transparency and privacy.
While video increases law enforcement accountability and aids in prosecuting criminals, Speaks said, it also captures come of the most-difficult moments in a person’s life. Some of that footage, when spread on social media, "is not only an invasion of privacy but that also may pose as a harmful threat to the safety of a witness of a crime or video footage that will harm a victim of crime."
Hetzel said he would rather the bill not also apply to dashboard cameras, because of the differences in how and when they are used.
"Unlike body camera footage, dash cameras almost always are utilized on public property in situations in which the subject of the recording has no expectation of privacy," Hetzel said, adding that case law around dash cam footage is well-established.
The exemption related to protecting health information needs tighter language, Hetzel said, and he opposes the exemption that blocks release of video that shows violence against an officer or first responder.
This, Hetzel said, "would restrict access to footage showing the performance of duties by public servants. We realize this is a sensitive subject." He suggested implementing a journalist exemption where the footage could be viewed, but not copied, to allow for reporting on the incident but not make it available for posting online.
The bill, which does not specify when body cameras need to be activated, still needs a final concurrence vote from the House.