York City won't release body camera policy
The American Civil Liberties Union disagrees with the York City Police Department's decision to keep the text of its body-camera policies under wraps.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley has answered questions about the policy in the nearly two weeks since the department announced the 14-officer program, but said "giving people a playbook" on how police operate isn't something he's going to do.
Therefore, he said, he won't make available the text of the policy, and the department on Friday denied a Right-to-Know request The York Dispatch filed seeking the policy guiding the pilot program.
"There’s nothing that we’re hiding," he said, however: "I'm not going to hand out the policies."
The York Dispatch plans to appeal that decision to the state Office of Open Records.
Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the Philadelphia-based ACLU of Pennsylvania, disagrees with Kahley.
"It’s a bizarre start to something that’s supposed to be about increasing transparency," Roper said.
Paula Knudsen, the director of government affairs and legislative counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said much the same.
"You have to start from a place of transparency," she said.
Kahley said the final policy is a work in progress, though he's not planning on releasing the full text of that, either, he said, unless the state Office of Open Records requires him to. But, he said, he does plan to make an explanation of key parts of the policy available online once it's finalized.
Erik Arneson, the executive director of the state Office of Open Records, declined to opine on the specifics of this case but spoke more generally about what informs his office's thought process around requests of police policies.
"Would disclosure of substance of the policy result in demonstrable risk of harm to people, in this case most likely the police officers?" he said, adding that question is the main one such decisions largely hinge on.
It's gone both ways, for various policies, with some having to be released and others redacted or withheld.
As is the case with all appeals to his office of Right-to-Know denials, both sides would get the chance to submit their respective rationales, and then his office will make a decision.
Arneson said his office hasn't dealt with any requests for police policies regarding body cameras, but it has ordered a police dash-cam policy released the one time someone appealed a denial of the release of such a policy. He said that doesn't necessarily mean they will grant the release of body-camera policies.
"Intuitively, it feels like there could be differences" between rationales not to release dash-cam and body-cam policies, he said, adding it would be hard to say until they deal with such a case.
The dash-cam case involved the attorney of someone suspected of drunken driving requesting the policy of the Chester County department that arrested the person. The department had denied the official request, saying the policy should be exempt from release because it pertains to investigations, a reason Arneson said likely would be raised for body-cam policies, too. The department also cited reasons pertaining to the state's vehicle code, which likely wouldn't be a factor in a body-camera request.
The Office of Open Records overrode the denial in January 2015, with their decision in part reading: "The purpose of the RTKL (Right-to-Know Law) is to enable citizens to scrutinize their government and make government officials accountable for their actions. ... As such, the OOR 'must … interpret the RTKL liberally to effect its purpose,'" quoting a previous decision.
Compliance: From what Kahley has disclosed, the current policy is largely consistent with what interest groups, including the ACLU, recommend.
One of the main concerns of the ACLU, according to Roper, is that departments won't monitor officers, giving officers latitude to choose not to film what they should be filming, such as a tense exchange with a community member.
"You don't get the benefits of a body-camera program unless you actually are monitoring for compliance," Roper said. "This is one thing that a lot of departments fall short on."
Kahley said the lieutenant in charge of the program is tasked with doing such checks. Having an internal reinforcement is part of being an accredited department, as York City Police recently became, he said — they have to be able to prove to the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association they're following all their own policies.
So far, the program has gone smoothly, Kahley said. The department has tweaked a few policies, and officers have met weekly to communicate about the program.
Before implementing the program department-wide, the chief will determine if the equipment and policies in place so far work — and if the program places too much additional burden on officers.
— Reach Sean Cotter at firstname.lastname@example.org.