Se­nate Bill 560 would hin­der pub­lic ac­cess, ac­count­abil­ity

Springfield Sun - - OPINION - By Melissa Melewsky

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.

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