Following on from today’s story about the costs and practices surrounding the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s video cameras, I’ve got some more background as to how the in-dash footage became closed to the public.
Before the Legislature exempted the patrol’s audio and video from the Oklahoma Open Records Act in 2005, anyone could buy a copy of a video for $25. Here’s the part of the legislation that was removed:
E. The Commissioner and any other officers of the Department as the Commissioner may designate are hereby authorized to prepare copies of videotape recordings which are not exempt law enforcement records, as prescribed in Section 24A.8 of Title 51 of the Oklahoma Statutes, when held as records of the Department, and deliver upon request to any person a copy of a videotape recording, for a fee of Twenty-five Dollars ($25.00) for each copy. Any monies collected by the Department pursuant to this subsection shall be deposited to the credit of the Department of Public Safety Revolving Fund.
According to Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association, one of the reasons DPS asked the legislature to remove that part of the law followed a request from a reality TV production company for every video of every trooper on every shift. The agency couldn’t fulfill that request and asked for the change in law.
Of course, the agency also had recently lost a court case on the subject. Here’s the story from our archives:
Highway patrol ordered to stop withholding tapes
By Nolan Clay
Thursday, March 3, 2005
Edition: City, Section: NEWS, Page 6A
A judge has barred the Oklahoma Highway Patrol from keeping videotapes of traffic arrests secret.
The ruling Friday came after an Oklahoma City attorney complained about a new restriction on the release of such videotapes.
“They don’t want these videos out. … They use any excuse that they can, even bad ones,” said attorney Stephen G. Fabian Jr., who specializes in drunken-driving cases.
Fabian has used the state Open Records Act to gather hundreds of videotapes from police departments and the patrol.
“We continue to find that many officers make up evidence and exaggerate their testimony about the events. These tapes are extremely important to a citizen who is wrongly accused,” he said.
The attorney sued the state Department of Public Safety in January after officials refused to release a videotape of a drunken-driving arrest. Officials said the attorney had to get the driver’s written consent first.
Oklahoma County District Judge Noma Gurich struck down that requirement as unlawful.
The Department of Public Safety said it was trying to prevent identity theft. An attorney for the agency told the judge the videotape had “personal information” that must be kept private under a federal law.
The department’s attorney said the videotape revealed the vehicle’s tag number and the driver’s image, address, full name and license number.
The attorney also said the driver in the videotape admits to “dipping Skoal” smokeless tobacco. The attorney said that “could be interpreted as ‘medical information’ that is considered protected ‘highly restricted personal information.’”
Meanwhile, if this issue comes up during the next session of the legislature, advocates for changing the law might have an ally in a former state commissioner of public safety. Bob Ricks, now the chief of police in Edmond, said he understands why DPS needs to keep the video footage out of the public realm — at least for a short time.
“Once a situation is over, I don’t have any hesitancy releasing those types of materials,” Ricks told me last week. “But initially you need to protect the information until an administrative or internal inquiry is over. Our policy in Edmond is we are prompt to release those things that don’t appear to be concerned with an administrative inquiry. You’ve got protect the rights of all involved, but I also believe in the First Amendment and getting information to the public as quickly as possible.”
For more on highway patrol video policies in other states, check out the Tulsa World story here.
Written by Paul Monies