Public and media access to police footage from cameras worn by officers or in their patrol cars has led to a clash over Oklahoma's Open Records Act as police and prosecutors seek to limit what kinds of videos are publicly released.
Advocates for more government openness raised concerns after a bill in a House committee was amended to gut a law that allows the public to access government records.
Rep. Mike Christian, a former Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper and the committee's chairman, acknowledged his amendment went too far and says he will work with prosecutors, police and the press on a compromise.
Meanwhile, freshman Democratic Rep. Claudia Griffith, who authored the original bill, said she would not bring it to her colleagues without a major rewrite.
"In no way will I let it be heard on the House floor in this way," said Griffith, D-Norman. Her original bill would have let police hold back videos from dashboard cameras and other records that might be used as evidence in criminal trials.
At issue now is how much access the media and public should have to police videos. In a letter to police chiefs across the state, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater urged departments not to outfit their officers with body-worn video cameras until the Open Records Act can be changed.
"My biggest concern is to protect law enforcement officers, victims, witnesses and the integrity of law enforcement investigations," Prater said. "There is a lot of privacy interests involved here."
Under a bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law last year by Gov. Mary Fallin, police audio and video recordings must be released, although exceptions are made for recordings that depict nudity, minors, a person's death or officers who become subject of an internal investigation — until the investigation is over.
State Sen. David Holt, an advocate in the Legislature for more government openness who wrote last year's bill, has agreed to sponsor the bill in the Senate and said he's willing to negotiate with police and law enforcement about expanding the list of exemptions, but doing so in a very narrowly tailored way.
"Body cameras do go places that dashboard cameras don't. They go into the homes of domestic violence victims. They talk to confidential informants whose lives might be in danger if their identity were to be released," said Holt, R-Oklahoma City. "If we need to actually build in some new exceptions, I'm open to that."
Mark Thomas, who represents dozens of newspapers across the state as the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said he's willing to work with law enforcement and district attorneys "to find a balance that is necessary so the public can know what the government is doing and the government can do its job."
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