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Some police videos should be released

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would standardize the use of body cameras worn by police officers and strictly limit the public release of the video recordings. Those limits are reasonable for the most part, but when a recording involves the use of force by an officer, the presumption should be to release the video, not restrict it.

Police use of deadly force against citizens, armed and unarmed, is an issue of growing concern, and lawmakers across the country are grappling with how to respond to those concerns while allowing law enforcement officers to do their jobs and protecting the public at the same time. Many police departments have responded by equipping officers with body cameras that take video recordings of their interactions with suspects and others.

The Oregon measure, House Bill 2571, does not require police departments to use the cameras, but sets out guidelines if they choose to do so. Among other things, departments using cameras would have to require the camera to be turned on as soon as an officer had probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed and leave it on until the police action was complete, and retain the recordings for at least six months.

HB 2571 would exempt the recordings from disclosure under public records laws except in two narrow instances: If the recording was part of a court proceeding or if it involved the use of force by an officer and the public interest required its release.

Elements of court proceedings already are public records, and ought to remain so. The desire to protect the privacy of individuals who interact with police is understandable, and most of the recordings likely would be of little interest to anyone not directly involved.

But any time an officer uses force, especially when injury or death results, releasing the recording should be presumed to be in the public interest, not subject to the discretion of the department. There is already an exemption for records involving active police investigations, and that would certainly apply when the use of force is being investigated. But once the investigation concludes, the recording should be released.

We would add a third instance when a recording should be a public record: when a complaint is filed against an officer alleging wrongdoing or misconduct, even if the matter does not become a court case. The public has a legitimate interest in how police officers conduct themselves on the job, and anyone questioning that conduct should be able to request a video recording of it.

Just as trust in government is strengthened when government records are available to the public, trust in law enforcement will be improved if recordings of police conduct are not hidden from public view.