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EDITORIAL: A win and a loss for transparency
The public scored a win last week when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled police dash camera video is indeed subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law.
The 5-2 ruling in favor of granting access to video shot by two state troopers responding to a 2014 crash near State College notes police vehicle recordings, as a general rule, are not exempt from public disclosure.
Of course an official record created by a public employee, using equipment paid for by taxpayers, should be available for inspection on demand.
It’s called good government, and it hinges on openness and transparency. It’s about keeping corruption at bay and building and maintaining trust.
Yet for years, law enforcement in Pennsylvania has claimed dash camera video is exempt from public scrutiny under the Right-to-Know Law. That’s why we rarely see such video taken in Pennsylvania.
The argument has been, and was in the recent court case, that everything recorded amounts to criminal investigative material and can be redacted, as allowed under the Right-to-Know Law.
The claim has never passed the smell test, and the high court now has put the onus on law enforcement to prove, in each case, that the material requested is investigative in nature.
That might be inconvenient for police sometimes or even embarrassing at other times, but neither should trump the public’s right to know.
Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the Supreme Court’s ruling should mean more footage will become available.
Unfortunately, on the same day as the state Supreme Court victory, the Pennsylvania House approved a bill that would make it more difficult for citizens to access a different type of police recording.
Senate Bill 560 is intended to increase the use of police bodycams throughout Pennsylvania by clarifying that state wiretap laws don’t apply unless officers don’t have constitutional authority to enter someone’s residence in the first place.
It’s an important fix.
The fact is we should be encouraging more police departments to adopt body cameras, considering studies have shown their use significantly reduces the number of times police officers use force and also reduces complaints against officers.
However, another part of the bill states that the recordings will not be subject to the state's Right-to-Know law.
If someone wants a copy of a recording, they must submit a written request to the police department, and, if denied, they can then appeal to the county's Court of Common Pleas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opposes the bill, primarily because it excludes footage from the state's Right-to-Know law, spokeswoman Elizabeth Randol said.
Randol said her organization understands the need to protect residents' privacy but said this bill overdoes that effort and will make it nearly impossible to obtain any footage — inside or outside of a residence.
A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf's office said the governor supports the bill as a step in the right direction, but the office is evaluating it in light of the Supreme Court decision on police dash cameras.
Wolf is right to be cautious.
If he doesn’t veto the bill, there’s a good chance body cameras will be before the high court before too long – and we now know its feelings on police recordings and transparency.
It’s just too bad our lawmakers don’t share them.