Don't charge public for police videos

With financial reimbursements from state government, Connecticut law encourages municipal police departments to equip their cruisers and officers with video cameras so encounters with the public can be evaluated reliably. The policy of recording such encounters has been adopted in response to complaints of police misconduct, though video of their work also can protect officers from the many false accusations made against them. 

But towns are worried about the cost of archiving, reviewing, and withholding the videos, and the Meriden Record-Journal reports that Cheshire's town manager, Michael Milone, has urged the town's delegation to the General Assembly to introduce legislation authorizing towns to charge fees for processing requests for access to videos. 

Charging such fees would nullify the point of police videos — accountability. If the public has to pay extra for accountability, police will have every incentive to make accountability expensive. 

Disclosing video is not expensive. Video is easily posted to the internet, and thousands of ordinary people do it every day. What is expensive is the time spent by government employees censoring video and other records, applying the exceptions to disclosure enumerated in Connecticut's freedom-of-information law. The more exceptions to disclosure, the more censorship review and the less accountability. 

State law already exempts disclosure of police photographs and video showing the victim of a homicide, "to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members." Of course police may want to construe that to prevent disclosure of images of people killed by the police themselves.

Thus the law seems to leave the Freedom of Information Commission and the courts to decide what constitutes an "unwarranted invasion" of "personal privacy" with photos of the slain. That means years of litigation about access to police video and photos of fatal confrontations with police and thus defeats the purpose of equipping police with video cameras — prompt accountability to the public. 

At least Cheshire's request to charge fees for evaluating requests for access to police videos may remind people of the point of recording police. If such video shows an arrest, confrontation, or altercation involving an officer, including an altercation resulting in death, it should be made public promptly and without question. Otherwise public confidence cannot be maintained. Disclosure of videos without arrests, confrontations, or altercations, like interviews with witnesses, can be left for the FOI Commission and the courts to decide on. 

The expense attributed to freedom of information is not caused by the public's right to know and its right to hold government to account but by the many exceptions written into the law, exceptions that tend to serve special interests. Real freedom of information — prompt disclosure and accountability — discourages wrongdoing and corruption and thus saves money. 

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