Police body worn cameras are now a reality in Ohio. Law enforcement rapidly continues to purchase and use them, and before we know it they will be an afterthought as part of everyday policing.
Striking a Balance
Body cams are also a complex issue for organizations like the ACLU of Ohio because they raise issues of police accountability, personal privacy, surveillance, and government transparency. Many times, these considerations overlap. Sometimes, they are in conflict with each other.
That said, police body cameras are and will be an effective tool but only if proper policies and procedures are in place regarding their use. Without those, they become just another reason for skepticism about how law enforcement conducts itself.
For almost a year, the ACLU of Ohio has been collecting body camera policies from local police departments, sheriffs’ offices and universities. Many of the policies reflect thoughtful consideration on issues such as when cameras should be activated and deactivated, how soon should recordings be kept or deleted, and compliance with Ohio’s public records laws. But even the best of these policies are lacking in some instances and need improvement.
Ohio Needs Standards
Ohioans are also ill-served by a patchwork of differing policies across the state. That is where the state legislature has a role. In this case, legislation from the Ohio General Assembly to require specific standards statewide would be most welcome. The ACLU of Ohio has been working with legislators to accomplish this goal but, thus far, our efforts have had mixed success.
Many of Ohio’s representatives and senators agree with us about the need for uniformity across the state to ensure body cameras benefit all involved and affected. But so far, that has not translated into a good bill to make this a reality.
To date, only House Bill 407 has been introduced. However, HB 407 leaves all the important considerations mentioned earlier completely up to law enforcement. The bill provides zero input or guidance from state legislators. This is the opposite of what Ohio needs right now.
Propping Open a Closing Window of Opportunity
Recently, City of Cincinnati officials attempted to enlist the help of legislators to introduce a bill that would have kept most recordings exempted from Ohio’s public records laws. This would have been a terrible blow to accountability and public oversight. Fortunately, that proposal was quickly rejected.
Police body cameras are and will be an effective tool but only if proper policies and procedures are in place regarding their use.
Other legislation is in the works, but none of it has been introduced. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. While Ohio still has nearly a year remaining in its current two-year legislative session, it is also an election year. Once legislators leave the Statehouse in June, they often do little between then and the November elections. It is entirely possible 2016 will come and go with little or no movement by state legislators on this subject.
However, 2016 also presents an opportunity for all of us. This year candidates for the Ohio legislature will be knocking on doors, attending events, marching in parades, sending you emails, and calling your phone. Use these occasions to tell them Ohio needs true and effective guidance from its legislature regarding police body worn cameras. And if they ask what you have in mind, feel free to send them our way. The ACLU has a few good ideas…