Owasso agrees to release police officer lapel camera video, audio materials after family files Open Records Act lawsuit

Owasso city officials have agreed to provide the police officer lapel camera video and audio materials sought by the family of a Tulsa man who died Oct. 27 in the Tulsa County jail, the Owasso Reporter reported Thursday.

The family had filed an Open Records Act lawsuit against Owasso after the police department would release only an arrest report, a radio log and a computer-aided dispatch report.

In the lawsuit, the family argued that the lapel video and other materials were "essential in determining the events which transpired during the arrest," the Tulsa World reported.

An attorney for the city had told the family that the video and audio materials were "in my opinion outside the scope of documents you are entitled to under the Open Records Act," the Owasso Reporter said.

In November, Owasso City Manager Rodney J. Ray refused requests by the Owasso Reporter and Tulsa World for a copy of lapel camera video showing a police lieutenant using excessive force for which he was fired.

Ray said arrest videos are not included in the eight categories of law enforcement records that must be released under the state Open Record Act. (See OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(A)(1-8))

The statute allows police departments to deny access to other law enforcement records "except where a court finds that the public interest or the interest of an individual outweighs the reason for denial." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(B))

But Ray said the public interest in releasing the lapel camera video of the police lieutenant using excessive force didn't outweigh protecting his right to appeal his firing.

In August, a Rogers County judge held that the Claremore Police Department's dash-cam recordings are not public records under the state Open Records Act.

But Associate District Judge Sheila A. Condren's ruling on the status of police videos runs contrary to relevant cases and to common practice in the state.

In 2005, an Oklahoma County district judge barred "the Oklahoma Highway Patrol from keeping videotapes of traffic arrests secret." (That ruling spurred legislators that year into exempting all Department of Public Safety dash-cam audio and video recordings.)

A year earlier, the state Supreme Court had held that Department of Public Safety recordings of administrative hearings concerning revocation of drivers' licenses were public under the Open Records Act. (Fabian & Assoc., P.C., v. State ex. rel. Dept. of Public Safety, 2004 OK 67)

The Supreme Court said the requested tapes contained facts concerning arrests and therefore were open under the Open Records Act. (Id. ¶ 14)

The statute makes public the "facts concerning the arrest, including the cause of arrest and the name of the arresting officer." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(2))

"By this statute," the Supreme Court said, "DPS is required to make available for public inspection facts concerning the arrest. Fabian asserts that the requested tapes contain the facts concerning the arrest and therefore § 24A.8(A)(2) requires the tapes to be open for public inspection. We agree."

Owasso city officials apparently agreed that the lapel video should be public after the family forced them into court on the issue.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

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.