In case you missed it, there was good public access news from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week, when the Court affirmed the public’s right to access videos gathered by police on the job. Unfortunately, that right is likely to be short-lived, because of Senate Bill 560.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Grove, that the Right to Know Law guarantees the right to access police dash camera video. That right is limited, and the law allows law enforcement agencies to prevent access to investigative and other material. The Court recognized the critical role played by law enforcement and simultaneously recognized that public access, and the accountability that follows, is a necessary and critical right as well. The Court found that the Right to Know Law strikes an appropriate balance between the need for confidentiality in some circumstances and the importance of public access and accountability in others.
You’ve seen these videos (mostly from other states); they show how law enforcement interacts with the public they are sworn to serve and protect. These records are irrefutable evidence of what actually happened. Many times, they illustrate law enforcement doing their job and doing it well. But you’ve also seen videos that show when things go wrong, terribly wrong, for officers and the public. Both types of videos can be agents for positive change, by illustrating best practices and showing where improvement is needed. Public access to these videos results in better policing and better relationships between law enforcement and the communities that depend on them.
Unfortunately, Senate Bill 560, which would eliminate access to most, if not all, police bodycam and dashcam footage, appears to be heading quickly to the governor’s desk. On the same day that Grove was decided, the House passed Senate Bill 560, which would render the Grove decision meaningless. The bill would remove all police recordings from the Right to Know Law and impose a cumbersome, unworkable process that makes it all but impossible to get these records. Proponents of the bill say it will allow some access, and it’s true that there is limited access language in the bill. But, the process is so cumbersome and allows law enforcement so many ways to deny access, that there simply won’t be meaningful public access in Pennsylvania.
Senate Bill 560 was introduced in March and was passed out of the Senate soon after. Despite concerns voiced by numerous good government organizations, the bill’s public access provisions have not been significantly amended. In advancing this bill in its current form, lawmakers have missed a real opportunity to craft a thoughtful, meaningful test balancing the very real needs of police, against the importance of public access and accountability in the communities they serve.
A far better path would be to acknowledge the Grove decision and recognize that the Right to Know Law — which involved months and even years of legislative discussion and debate — is the best method to strike the balance between meaningful public access and the need for law enforcement confidentiality.
Melissa Melewsky is Media Law Counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.