40 percent of police record requests denied

(EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the second of four parts on a survey of how local government agencies and school districts in Pennsylvania are responding to requests for public records under the state Right-to-Know Law.)

HARRISBURG — Dash-cam videos have fueled a national debate on police policies and tactics, but in Pennsylvania those images remain largely out of sight, thanks to state laws that give law enforcement broad power to keep out of public view anything considered to be investigative material.

A statewide survey of how governments handle requests for public records found that police agencies invoked those laws to deny 10 of 25 requests made by employees of Pennsylvania newspapers. In 10 other instances, they said they didn’t have the tapes, either because they had been erased, handed off to prosecutors or other departments or the recorder was turned off or nonexistent.

Five departments disclosed at least some of what their officers’ vehicle cameras recorded at specific scenes identified by journalists during a coordinated test of how public entities are applying the state Right-to-Know Law.

The legal standards for disclosure of police dash and body cameras could soon change, depending how the state Supreme Court rules in a woman’s request to obtain state police dash-cam video from a 2014 traffic accident near State College involving her friend.

During arguments before the high court in September, state police argued the lower court had erred in determining portions of the tape were not investigative in nature and had to be disclosed.

State police took the position that altering current rules would mean expensive frame-by-frame reviews, could compromise investigations and might expose people to public scrutiny against their wishes. News groups have argued that police actions that are not truly investigative in nature should be available for people to review and the recordings tend to increase the accountability of government.

During the survey conducted by more than 100 employees of 21 newspapers, police in Springdale Township, Allegheny County, provided a complete video of a pursuit, starting before the patrol officer activated his siren and lights. It showed the vehicle that was being chased hitting a tree and fence and ended with three occupants being hauled away in handcuffs.

Other tapes that agencies agreed to release involved a fatal crash in the York suburbs; a response to an overdose, also near York; and a 20-minute dash-cam video from a crash and double homicide in Allentown that was disclosed because it was not considered investigative.

Nine of the 10 blanket denials were based on the Right-to-Know Law’s criminal investigative exception or the Criminal History Record Information Act, which bars police from giving investigative information to anyone but courts, police and other criminal justice agencies in the course of their duties. The 10th department sought a 30-day extension to reply and was not heard from again.

“There is no way we can release evidence in a case that has not even had a preliminary hearing,” Greensburg’s police chief said when asked for dash-cam video used to charge an officer with falsifying truck inspection reports.

Philadelphia police denied a request for body camera footage related to the shooting death of Officer Robert Wilson, who was gunned down in an apparent botched robbery as he was buying a video game for his son. They said the evidence, “to the extent it existed,” had been turned over to prosecutors.

Southern Regional Police in York County declined to provide tape from a car chase and foot pursuit, citing the criminal investigative exception as well as another section of the Right-to-Know Law, a broad exemption that allows information to be withheld if it would “deprive a person of the right to a fair trial.”

Several departments said enough time had passed that they had automatically purged the requested footage.

In October, state lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to restrict situations in which police officers are identified while under investigation for firing a weapon or using force that results in death or serious injury, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed it last week, saying that a lack of transparency in such shootings breeds mistrust between police and the public.

The open records survey, conducted over a week in May, was developed by The Associated Press in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Society of News Editors, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

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