Oklahoma Highway Patrol dash-cam videos should be public

More than $1.4 million in Oklahoma taxpayers' money has been spent outfitting the Highway Patrol with state-of-the-art digital dash-cams in the past year but keeps such videos secret unlike most other states in the region, The Oklahoman and Tulsa World reported this week.

As noted in earlier posting by this blog, legislators closed access to the videos in 2005 at the request of the OHP and Department of Public Safety.

In Sunday's Tulsa World, OHP spokesman Capt. Chris West said the agency requested the recordings be closed to the public largely out of concerns for both trooper safety and the privacy of residents.

"I can assure you it's not about secrecy; it's confidentiality," West said.

Then why are such videos public elsewhere in the country?

There is a clear, legitimate and compelling public interest in making such videos open for public inspection. Access to police dash-cam videos in other states have revealed abusive behavior by law enforcement agents and also exonerated officers of such claims.

In Oklahoma, DPS officials release the videos when it suits them.

West told The Oklahoman that the only other time he could recall OHP voluntarily releasing video was in the 2003 killing of Trooper Nikky Green in Cotton County.

"In our opinion, that was night and day,” West said. "We were trying to catch a cop killer.”

But DPS recently denied a request by The Oklahoman to review video footage of a November 2008 incident in Henryetta where a trooper faces a misdemeanor assault and battery charge in the alleged beating of a handcuffed female suspect.

DPS officials can choose which videos it releases because the state statute limiting public access says the department "may" keep them secret.

Oklahomans rightfully should expect state legislators next session to undo the damage they did to the public's right to know in 2005. Close the exemption.

If legislators won't do it, then let's hope the next governor will order his Department of Public Safety to make all the videos public as a matter of routine.

Let's not forget that the DPS works for the governor and the governor works for us.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.