Legislation touted as ensuring the dignity of law officers killed in the line of duty may not do what its supporters think.
Senate Bill 968, by Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, was prompted by dashboard camera video of Tulsa Police Sgt. Craig Johnson being shot to death and Officer Aurash Zarkeshan being seriously wounded during a traffic stop last summer.
SB 968 would insert language into the Oklahoma Open Records Act barring law enforcement agencies from releasing such images except by court order.
But people familiar with the Open Records Act, and particularly the section dealing with video, said the Johnson video would be just as likely to become public record under SB 968 as it is now.
The Johnson video became public record not because of an open records request but because of a court order after defendant David Anthony Ware’s attorneys discovered that the video differed from the public accounts given by police.
Current law allows but does not require law enforcement agencies to release video such as the one depicting Johnson’s and Zarkeshan’s shootings. As a practical matter, those agencies rarely, if ever, surrender such images voluntarily, said Oklahoma Press Association Executive Vice President Mark Thomas and one of the architects of the state’s open records laws.
“It’s not as if high-ranking law enforcement officials are going to get together and say, “Yes, let’s put out this video of our officer being killed.’”
Thomas said the OPA does not exactly support SB 968, as has been claimed by its proponents, but the organization isn’t actively opposing it, either.
The main reason for that, Thomas said, is because he doesn’t believe the measure will have any practical effect. Thomas and Oklahoma State University journalism professor Joey Senat, an open records and meetings watchdog, agreed that law enforcement agencies can already redact or withhold images of any dead bodies, law enforcement or otherwise.
And, Thomas said, “arguing for video of dead police officers would have zero support.”
Thomas and Senat said the purpose of open records laws, including those covering police video, is public oversight. For that reason, the main objection to SB 968 is that it also would prohibit the release of “any related acts or events immediately preceding or subsequent to the acts or events that caused or otherwise relate to the death.”
In theory, a law enforcement agency might use that language to withhold video of police wrongdoing in conjunction with an officer’s death. But, as now, it would have to produce the video in court proceedings and make it public if ordered to do so by a judge.
Thomas has been involved for nearly 20 years in the long, sometimes contentious dispute over whether law enforcement dashcam and bodycam video are public record.
Thomas said it began with the 2003 murder of Oklahoma Highway Patrol Officer Nikky Joe Green.
Green’s dashcam — then a new technology — captured the sound of his execution along a Cotton County road. The Open Records Act did not address video then, and the fight over releasing it resulted in the OHP’s securing an exception for it in 2005.
Since then, that exception has been partially repealed.
Over time, Thomas said, a policy was developed that permits law enforcement agencies to blur or redact images of dead bodies, officers or otherwise, unless the death occurred as a result of action by a law officer.
“If a police officer shoots somebody, they can’t cover it up,” Thomas said.
Related video: Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin speaks about the release of a video showing the shootings of two Tulsa police officers
Gallery: Memorial service for Tulsa Police Sgt. Craig Johnson