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Editorial: The need for transparency
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Editorial: The need for transparency

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This year, Iowa newspapers have teamed up on an important reporting project to inform their readers.

Journalists set out to help the public understand the technology that has had a profound effect on law enforcement throughout Iowa and around the United States in the past decade or so.

This transformative technology is the compact video cameras that are used by more police every month at the scene of crimes and incidents to which officers are sent. The cameras have provided important documentation of these events, supplementing the observations of officers and witnesses — people investigations have relied on for many generations.

There have been countless examples across Iowa where the videos recorded by these officer-worn cameras or squad car cameras have proven to be an important tool that has allowed officers to replay rapidly unfolding events or to replay conversations with witnesses in the crucial minutes after a crime or other incident.

That video record of events as they occurred, one unaffected by human reactions or people’s emotions, was supposed to improve law enforcement’s accountability to the public, too.

But Iowa journalists documented this year that while many police departments and sheriffs’ offices routinely share these videos when asked, others routinely decline all such requests and refuse to make their videos public, regardless of the circumstances that were recorded.

Not surprisingly, that steadfast position has put Iowa law enforcement and the purpose of the state’s open records law under the spotlight when officers’ actions come under scrutiny — especially when gunshots occur, when officers or civilians are killed or wounded, or when disagreements arise over the way events unfolded.

The insistence of some government officials that police videos will forever remain confidential as part of their investigative files means everyday Iowans have no guarantee of access, short of filing a lawsuit. Such legal action often is beyond the financial reach of families whose relative died at the hands of a law officer or those people charged during encounters with police who seek access to the videos to prove their innocence.

Law enforcement officials, when asking for money to buy these cameras, frequently assured city councils and boards of supervisors that the videos would provide important public accountability. But too many of these departments now resist request to make these videos public — leading, quite naturally, to questions of "why?".

Social justice and community activists, along with advocates for government transparency, often are at odds with law enforcement officials over the correct interpretation of the 42-year-old open records law that was written before this police video technology was invented.

The disagreement is so pronounced that some law enforcement agencies even refuse to provide the public with copies of their internal policies that spell out when video must be recorded or how long the videos will be retained before being destroyed.

Advocates for government accountability make the case that the open records law already requires police to release the immediate facts and circumstances of every crime or incident officers respond to, and videos recorded at the time of such incidents provide an unaltered accounting of those circumstances.

While these advocates and some law officials disagree over the interpretation of the open records law, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the need for confidentiality of police investigative materials must be balanced against the need for transparency in important circumstances.

That is a conclusion we all should agree on.

This editorial was written by Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, of which the Quad-City Times is a member, and shared with several Iowa newspapers. The Quad-City Times Editorial Board supports the views in this editorial.

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