Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Body Cameras, Drones Present New Challenges for Media and Courts

The rapidly growing public and media interest in newsworthy events captured by drone aircraft and police worn body cameras comes as policy makers, courts and the press hash out the legal and ethical issues involved with the new technology, said experts in the field talking to a gathering of Ohio legal and media professionals.

Nearly 80 percent of the nation’s police agencies are considering using body cameras, including many in Ohio. State lawmakers and local law enforcement agencies are starting to deal with issues such as the access to the footage, protecting privacy rights of those recorded, and how police departments will organize and retain the footage, said Jonathan Peters, chairman of the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA) Media Law Committee as he led a session to kick off the OSBA’s 2015 Law & Media Conference.

Former Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Reginald Wilkinson reminded the group that body cams are just the latest iteration of law enforcement use of video and that the science and policies around the best use of the technology will evolve with time. Wilkinson, now a consultant with his own firm Connecting the Dots, LLC, was named to lead a panel by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on law enforcement training that was assembled in response to recent officer-involved shootings in the state.

Wilkinson said the public demand for body cams is borne for a need to improve police interactions with the community, improve community relations and build trust. He cautioned that while video in use today from stationary sources have been very helpful, including solving the Boston Marathon bombings, all video has its shortcomings and hashing out how it will be most effective from the law enforcement and public’s point of view will take time.

“I hesitated on whether I would say this, but a lot is going to be decided through case law,” he said.

Jeffrey Clark, assistant Ohio attorney general in the Constitutional Offices Section, has been advising local law enforcement and state agencies on the public record aspects of police video. He said there are several exemptions to the state’s public records law that can keep much of the body cam video out of public view. However, he said it has been his experience that once a trial is over, a plea accepted, a grand jury has taken action or a case closed, police and prosecutors have been prompt in turning video over to the media. He expects that to continue.

One key issue raised by panelists is the right to protect the privacy of citizens caught on police cameras.  Unlike most of the video taken today, that is in public areas, body cams will be recording in private homes where citizens still have an expectation of privacy.

To address privacy concerns, Adam Marshall, legal fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, noted the makers of body cameras have developed software in recent weeks that would allow police to blur out sensitive materials such as the faces of bystanders or personal identification information throughout the police interaction.

Marshall said states are moving ahead with laws governing the use of body cams, with some going as far as to make the footage completely confidential.

“Some states are exempting them completely and some states are focusing on privacy issues. I would say the majority are focused on privacy,” Marshall said.

Wilkinson said the demand for body cams represents a citizen demand for more transparency and accountability from law enforcement.

Jim Siegel, statehouse reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, reiterated that point and said Ohio media outlets will continue to be interested in obtaining body cam footage, especially in high profile police encounters.

“From the media perspective, this is going to be one more public record we are going to be fighting about,” he said.

Privacy issues were raised also during discussions about drones. Panels discussed the potential legal issues regarding the use of drones and how recent Federal Aviation Administration regulations govern media outlets using footage obtained by drones. Even if rules permit media outlets from obtaining footage, news providers still have to consider traditional laws from invasion of privacy and trespassing to wiretap statutes depending on the video and audio capabilities of the drones.

Alex Bongiorno, news director for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, said she is already assigned to develop a list ways the station could use drones in news coverage. She was told to be prepared to have a discussion with the station’s legal counsel on all the potential ramifications of those usages before they begin using drones for stories.

The conference drew a record attendance of attorneys, judges, professional journalists, student journalists, and educators. Other panels included accessing public records; defamation and libel; reporting on courts; and building a bench bar forum where media, lawyers, judges and law enforcement can candidly discuss effective justice reporting in their communities.