ACLU weighs in on York City's policy on releasing police body-cam footage
The ACLU of Pennsylvania has weighed in on Mayor Michael Helfrich's plan to review York City's policy of never releasing police body-camera footage to the public.
Responding Tuesday to a York Dispatch article reporting that Helfrich hopes to modify the policy, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union noted on Twitter that making such police videos more readily available to citizens is in the public interest.
"He appears to be taking this very seriously," Liz Randol, legislative director for ACLU of Pennsylvania, told The York Dispatch on Wednesday. "Certainly we would encourage that and would be more than happy to assist in any way."
Making public certain body-cam footage — such as disputes between officers and citizens — is a way for officials to be accountable to the people of a community, according to Randol.
"Accountability and transparency are hard to come by if the public doesn't have access to (that information)," she said.
Pennsylvania's Act 22 of 2017 has an investigative exemption that allows police agencies and public officials to withhold body-camera video indefinitely — even after a case is closed and the defendant and victim are dead, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
"That's bad for public access and doesn't help law enforcement either. ... I can't fault law enforcement for being cautious, but I think that caution is sometimes applied too broadly, and is inconsistent with the public interest," she said. "Once you reach a certain point in an investigation, there needs to be some guaranteed access."
'Byzantine process': Randol noted that Act 22 excludes body-camera video from the state's Right-to-Know Law and instead creates a "byzantine," or overly difficult, process for members of the public to navigate.
For example, citizens who are refused what they believe is a public document can appeal to the state Office of Open Records. But Act 22 changed that process for police body-camera video, meaning a member of the public must actually appeal in common pleas court, which could be cost-prohibitive for those who can't afford attorneys.
Now-retired York City Police Chief Troy Bankert's policy was to never release body-camera video, according to the mayor.
Helfrich said he hopes to create a fair, logical policy going forward that gives the public access where appropriate.
"I'm glad the ACLU is in support of us reevaluating the city's policy," Helfrich said.
He noted that for mayors, the issue of releasing or not releasing body-camera footage "is something we are all struggling with."
The mayor said he is especially interested in finding a way to release body-camera footage that will assuage citizens' concerns about a police incident, or even help quell public unrest.
Helfrich said he intends to review policies of a number of cities that do release body-camera footage when certain criteria is met.
Specifically, he said, the policy in Louisville, Kentucky, is for an executive team that includes the police chief, mayor and others to evaluate whether video should be released, and to try to do that quickly — especially in cases where officials are trying to push back against "potential disinformation that could cause public unrest."
ACLU tweets: On Tuesday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania stated on Twitter that when the state's Legislature was debating changes to the state wiretap act, which is what led to the creation of Act 22, "we adamantly advocated for balancing transparency and privacy."
"They didn't listen and exempted police-produced video as an open record. But local governments can be more transparent. Police body cameras have been trumpeted as a tool for accountability. But they're not if the police decide when and if video is ever released," the ACLU tweeted. "It is in the public interest for (Helfrich and York City) to consider policy revisions that make police-produced video more readily available to the people."
Helfrich's review of York City's current policy came after York City and the York County District Attorney's Office declined requests from The York Dispatch to release body-camera video of a confrontation between a city police officer and York County Common Pleas Judge Matthew D. Menges.
Officer Alexander Nova noted that the judge nearly ran him over on Jan. 21 after refusing to obey a traffic directive.
The York County District Attorney's Office later determined Menges didn't recklessly put Nova's safety at risk.
Menges pleaded guilty Feb. 18 to three traffic summary offenses. He has 30 days to appeal, but Pennsylvania's Act 22 allows law enforcement agencies to keep video footage from the public even after a case is closed.
The mayor confirmed that once a new policy is in place, it will be used to determine whether the Menges video will be made public.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.