By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
A legislative interim committee will tackle whether the footage from police body cameras should be available to the public.
More and more law enforcement agencies are purchasing the devices, which have been touted as a means to clear up concerns over police actions in volatile situations.
It’s a question that’s been building. Rep. John Price, R-Greenwood, and Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, filed bills in this year’s legislative session asking that the question be examined.
The Interim Study Committee on Government, chaired by Sen. Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, has been assigned the task.
HSPA will push for transparency with clear and limited instances where the footage could be deemed confidential.
The experience with cruiser cams and building security cameras in Indiana shows that if the “investigatory records” exception is applied, then the public likely will only see footage that puts law enforcement officials in a good light.
Jose Lemus-Rodriguez was fatally shot in December 2007 by rookie Fort Wayne police officer James Arnold.
The 24-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala sparked a police chase when he drove away after initially being stopped for disregarding a stop sign.
There were two warrants on Lemus-Rodriguez for probation violation for previous driving violations.
Lemus-Rodriguez crashed during the chase. When one police officer opened his driver’s side door, Lemus-Rodriguez put the car into reverse and accelerated, striking one police car as his vehicle moved back toward an intersection.
An independent investigation found that Arnold felt his life was in danger as the vehicle accelerated.
Arnold fired 18 shots, emptying his handgun. Lemus-Rodriguez died from his gunshot wounds.
There were concerns raised by the Hispanic community in Fort Wayne concerning whether excessive force had been used by Arnold.
The city refused to release the cruiser cam videos of the shooting. It cited the “investigatory records” provision of the Access to Public Records Act to deny access.
More likely, the city was either concerned about community protests (see Ferguson, Mo.) or wanted to keep the video under wraps to suppress the cost of a legal settlement with Lemus-Rodriguez’s family.
Arnold was exonerated by an independent review conducted by an outside consultant, Lt. Robert Black, who at the time was a master instructor with the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield.
In another incident, a photographer for the Purdue University student newspaper, The Exponent, was seized and held temporarily by campus police as they secured a building where a student was murdered in January 2014.
Michael Takeda said he was shoved to the ground, damaging his camera equipment, and pushed into a wall when campus policy and sheriff’s deputies took him into custody. The police report of the incident did not match Takeda’s story.
Exponent publisher Pat Kuhnle asked to view security camera footage to determine which version of events happened.
The campus police first said there were no security cameras in the area. When Kuhnle showed them the camera placement, they reluctantly allowed him to see the footage when the situation spiraled toward litigation.
While the footage showed Takeda being pushed to the ground and clearly bumped into a wall, none of the officers were disciplined for their actions or for the fact that their report didn’t align with the footage, according to Kuhnle.
I appreciate that any police body cam statute must take into account some privacy concerns or protect the identity of undercover officers, but any exceptions must not be allowed to consume the intent to give the public the ability to question the actions of police officers.
Transparency will maintain confidence in a community that law officers are acting appropriately or will expose issues that need to be addressed – through training or discipline – by the law enforcement agency.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.