In Cleveland, police enjoy extra privacy guarantees, even when they break the law


Q: Should public record body cam videos be censored by police prior to release?

By Sarah Sidlow

So that happened…
It’s been a rough month for Cleveland police officer Angelia Gaston. Last week, a fellow police officer tried to have Gaston’s car towed—probably because of the $1,500 in parking tickets Gaston had accrued. When Gaston fled the scene (she literally drove away from the officer awaiting the tow truck), she got slapped with an obstruction-of-justice charge. The nerve. It seems Gaston’s law enforcement colleague didn’t get the memo that police officers, even when they’re off duty, don’t get treated like
any old citizen.

Fortunately, the City of Cleveland, it would seem, did get the memo. When local news outlets asked the City for body camera videos related to the incident, they received footage with a few more alterations than usual: Gaston’s face had been obscured in the video. It’s common practice for the faces of police officers to be blurred in publicly available videos, but rarely, if ever, are the faces of other people charged with crimes omitted from police footage.

Now, Gaston has become the face—er, whatever—of a debate on cops as private citizens. Does the public have the right to see un-redacted video of police officers who are formally charged with committing crimes?

Just doing my job, ma’am
Cleveland city officials cite provisions in Ohio’s open records law that allow for an exemption of police images. Basically, the logic is that at any time, a Cleveland police officer may be assigned undercover or plain-clothes assignments—in which case having images or video of the officer’s identity online would work counter to
the officer’s mission.

In a broader context, supporters of this interpretation of the law argue that in today’s political climate, police officers must be especially cognizant of protecting their identities, lest they face vigilante justice from a disgruntled citizen.

Plus, the argument goes, if even off-duty officers are expected to answer the call of duty, then they deserve a little extra protection, as well.

Blurred lines
But others argue this level of police protection bleeds into an area of entitlement for police officers—probably the same arena that would make an officer assume she can drive away from the consequences of a $1,500 parking bill.

Abuse of power is definitely a thing, and opponents say that public accountability is still one of the most efficacious means of fighting that trend in the criminal justice system.

The City of Cleveland has a history of using its interpretation of Ohio Sunshine Laws to exempt police officers from things like mug shot requests (recently, for an officer accused of soliciting a prostitute, another charged with possessing cocaine and a third with drunken driving, according to Cleveland.com).

And then there’s this challenge from Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association: if Cleveland police are concerned about blowing their cover in an important incognito mission, we should assume that we’ll never see photos of them receiving national awards or other honors.


Blur ’em all

Releasing footage of arrestees serves
no worthwhile purpose

By Victor DeLaine

The police should not publicly disclose photos and videos of an arrestee before he’s convicted. That’s true for any arrestee, and especially for arrestees who are cops.

And it’s truer than ever in the Internet Age. The internet is a pillory for those accused of crime. A pillory, if you don’t know, is a board with holes in it for your head and hands, to which they would chain you in olden days in order to invite public ridicule as punishment for a crime. The civilized world abandoned pillorying a long time ago, rightly seeing it as barbaric. But then Al Gore had to go and invent the internet, and a new kind of pillory soon followed.

In fact, the internet is worse than the pillory in at least three ways. First, the pillory exposed you only to local ridicule. On the internet, the whole world gets to laugh at the footage of your luckless, arrested self. Second, though your tour of duty in the pillory would eventually come to end, the internet will go on savoring your ugly mugshot forever. And third, they couldn’t chain you to the pillory until you were tried and convicted. On the internet, pillorying can start from the very day of your arrest.

That last point may be the most important. The idea that you’re innocent until proven guilty may seem a sentimental anachronism, but it’s still our best protection against a police state. The punishment should not start until you’re found guilty. Internet shaming, however, starts the punishment from the moment of the arrest, especially if a photo or video accompanies the news. The hoi polloi intuitively side with the police and assume that if you’re arrested you must have really done it. That’s why countries that take the rights of the accused more seriously than we do, such as Canada and Britain, curtail pretrial publicity about the accused, without any harm to free civic discourse. In the US, however, where freedom of the press is less a constitutional principle than a reality-TV fetish, we treat a public-records request from the National Enquirer like an order from God. There’s a movie called “The Running Man” in which a game-show host in the dystopian near future picks up a phone and barks at the operator to get him the Justice Department’s “Entertainment Division.” That future is now.

But if we have to give body-cam footage to every Facebook voyeur who asks for it, the least we can do is to blur the arrestee’s face. The only worthy public purpose that the release of arrest footage serves is the scrutiny to which it exposes the police, who have been known to abuse their power when no one is looking. Showing the accused’s face, however, serves no purpose other than TV ratings.

And when the accused is a cop, there are even more reasons for blurring his face. Consider the case of Angelia Gaston. Among other tasks that circumstances might require Officer Gaston to perform is to go undercover. That’s not easy for any cop under even the best of circumstances, but it would be a lot harder for Officer Gaston if her undercover gig takes place when the video of her parking-ticket fracas is all over YouTube, Facebook, and the Six O’Clock News. Consider too that Officer Gaston is black and a woman, making her a doubly rare commodity, doubly valuable to Cleveland’s all-too-Caucasian constabulary and thus to the people of Cleveland. She may well deserve the derision with which people have slathered her. But shouldn’t she get her day in court before we all gang up on her, before we mark her for life with a scarlet letter, before we end her career with online shaming? I mean, you know, she might be innocent.

But no matter which officer we’re talking about, it wouldn’t hurt us to cut accused cops in general a little extra slack, at least in the small way the Cleveland PD does. Cops are in a uniquely stressful position. Society consists of the law-giving and the law-abiding, and police must straddle the tectonic fault-line between the two. It is an active fault-line, where shots are fired and blood is shed. The police pay a high price for manning it. Alcoholism and mental illness lay a heavier hand on cops than on the rest of us. The suicide rate among cops is four times that of everyone else, whom they protect. Sure, the badges they wear and the guns they wield for us mean that we must keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t abuse their powers. But the deadly risks they take in our name, and the stresses and sorrows they bear for us, entitle them to some compassion too.

So, Cleveland is right to blur the faces of cops who face arrest. They should blur the face of every arrestee.


Smile, you’re on camera!

Like it or not, we are all being watched
at some point throughout our day

By Missy Mae Walters

Privacy is simply not what it used to be and for some of us, this dwindling freedom is a hard one to bite off.

An undercover Ohio police officer found out the hard way after racking up nearly $1,500 in parking tickets. Cleveland Officer Angelia Gaston was charged earlier this year with obstructing justice after she drove away from a fellow police officer who was trying to tow her car. Unfortunately for Gaston, the entire incident was caught on camera. The Cleveland Police Department chose to censor the video by blurring out Gaston’s face citing her occupation.

First lesson here is to pay your parking tickets. Second lesson is that the video of the interaction leaves little room for a “he said, she said” scenario so Gaston is guilty
as charged.

The questions I beg to ask are first, what right do the police have in censoring the face of a fellow police officer, and where is the line exactly drawn when it comes to what is and what is not edited out? This is a blurry answer in Ohio.

Having a badge does not and should not give you a free pass. Hopefully, Officer Gaston pays her parking tickets in the future but alas, she has provided one of many examples of choice censorship. Unless a set criterion is established across the board in our fair state, every jurisdiction will have free reign to determine their own policies, opening a Pandora’s Box to abuse of power.

Prior to the 2014 Ferguson shooting, not many of us had even imagined police wearing cameras. It was an almost instant sensation that caught fire across the country as questions arose following several scenarios of police misconduct allegations. I am a realist when it comes to the police. They are often placed into threatening situations where Junior Cotillion classes are not going to do them much good. I mean seriously. Whoever thinks that talking nice to most of these people actually works, needs to do a ride along with their local police station.

Just imagine. Officer: “Pardon me, but could you please put down your weapon and we can discuss the problem like adults?” Ha. I’m sorry but that is just not going to cut it in 99% of situations a police officer walks into.

The use of force is necessary on many hardened criminals to both get their attention and then to make certain they know the officers mean business.

Now, I do believe it can go a little too far. This is one of many reasons I see body cam video of police interactions as a useful tool in keeping us all safe.

An article recently published in the Houston Chronicle showed that body cameras are positive means of reducing aggression involving police officers. The number of times officers themselves reported using force has dropped 42 percent. The number of formal

complaints, meanwhile, decreased 21 percent between 2015 and 2016.

Government budgets are drawing attention across the state as body cameras are being added as part of department line items.

Just down the road, the City of Columbus is making a pretty significant investment, equipping nearly 1,300 members of the Columbus Police Department with the technology. The cost of the rollout is expected to be around
$9.1 million over five years.

As more localities make similar investments, the debate over what should and shouldn’t be included in public records is only going to get more heated.

Right now, the Ohio State House has two House Bills in the works involving the subject matter. House Bills (HB) 407 and 585 both establish a universal standard for departments across the state but differ in the standards. HB 585 essentially expands upon the original HB 407.

House Bill 585 establishes four areas of exception in which a police body camera video would not be released as a public record. These four reasons include: if the video is a confidential investigatory record; taken within a private home; taken within a private business; and if the footage involves a sex crime victim or juvenile. Both bills have an uncertain future in both the House Local Government and House Judiciary committees. More than likely both bills will not be brought up for a vote until next session.

While body cam footage may help get to the truth of an incident for police, there should be few exceptions to what is blurred out or edited. I have a hard time myself justifying footage of survivors of sex or other violent crimes, juveniles, or the presence of the deceased. Additionally, personal information such as banking information, drivers license, SSN and Tax ID numbers should be removed. To me, those are the only types of video footage that deserves to be censored. It is the only two that are
black and white.

It should be worrisome to us all that localities can edit footage where they see fit to protect their own interests. This is why a universal standard needs to be established soon. The more time that passes, there are sure to be more instances of abuse taking place as we stand by.

And, just to remind everyone, pay your parking tickets.

 

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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