State’s police video policy will nurture unnecessary distrust

Regrettably, it didn’t last long.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week ruled that police dashboard videos can be made a matter of public record unless the police agency can prove it contains criminal investigation material.

This week, the state Legislature approved a bill that allows denial of the video footage to the public if confidential informants, victims, or evidence cannot be removed or obscured or if the video is subject to an administration investigation.

While courts could still hear appeals of the public records denial, the conditions on the release pretty much override the court’s action of a week ago.

In passing the bill, lawmakers cleared legal hurdles for police departments to expand the use of body cameras.

That’s a good thing. But shutting out the public from almost all access to video footage is not.

Experience of the past several years shows that unrest over police cases is an outgrowth of distrust, much of it unwarranted and misplaced.

In almost all cases, police have been found to have made correct, split-second decisions. If more video footage were available on a timely basis, we are confident that police actions would be validated in almost all cases.

By restricting that footage, police are creating a scenario in which the public is going to be prone to distrust what it is hearing from police. The fact that police may opt to release the footage voluntarily is of little consequence.

Public perception is a powerful thing. And the public is going to perceive that police only release footage when it is selectively favorable to them.

Police make thousands of split-second decisions every day in this country and get those decisions right an incredibly high percentage of the time. Police deserve a higher credibility rating with the public than they get for their largely thankless jobs, but this path of selective transparency will only nurture greater mistrust.

And that’s a shame.

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