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Investigation: Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s controversial dash cam video exemption

OKLAHOMA CITY – Police dash cam video has been around for decades.

For police agencies in Oklahoma, that video is considered a public record, made available to the public, upon request.

There is one notable exception to the state Open Records Act, The Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

News Channel 4’s Ali Meyer has been investigating this peculiar exception for The OHP that allows the patrol to keep all of its dash cam video under lock and key.

Despite having a multi-million dollar camera system the public paid for, the public does not have access to a single frame of that video.

The Oklahoma State Supreme Court has ruled with clarity on the issue of dashboard camera video.

For law enforcement agencies which have it, that video is part of the public record; a safeguard against corruption.

Most metro departments release dash cam video when requested because they recognize the value of transparency.

It is the law in Oklahoma.

“It’s the public policy of this state that Oklahomans are vested with an inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government,” OSU professor Joey Senat said. “That’s the operating principle of the Open Records Act. It’s your government.”

Senat is an expert in government transparency.

He tracks the freedom of information across the country and in Oklahoma.

“The more secrecy you have, the more corruption you have, the more inefficiency, the more incompetence,” Senat said.

And yet, the agency that makes more traffic stops than any other in our state, the Highway Patrol, does not release dash cam video.

We checked our records and can only find a handful of times the department has released its dash cam video:

  • I-35 traffic stop and arrest of Timothy McVeigh. (April 19, 1995)
  • Cotton County shooting of Trooper Nikky Green which sparked a manhunt of the suspect. (December 26, 2003)
  • Okfuskee County fight between Trooper Daniel Martin and an EMT released after public pressure and a corresponding cell phone video. (May 24, 2009)
  • Allegations of an aggressive arrest. Troopers were cleared after a review of the tape. (2009)

In 2005, after losing two court battles involving open records, the Department of Public Safety asked for an exemption to the Open Records Act.

Legislators at our State Capitol gave it to them.

“Whenever the Department of Public Safety loses a court battle, they go to the legislature to get the lawmakers to change the law to undo the public’s need to know and right to know,” Senat said.

The exemption is contained in a special section of the Open Records Act, H (3).

It applies to “audio or video recordings of the Department of Public Safety.”

MORE: Click here to see the Oklahoma State Statute exemption

Attorneys like Stephen Fabian can get access to the video with a subpoena.

“The video shows you how they actually interacted,” Fabian said. “It shows you the tone. Those subtleties that don’t come through on a piece of paper. It shows you what really happened and police shouldn’t fear that.”

The OHP is quick to point out the agency complies with all subpoenas and court orders.

But for the taxpayers who paid for the equipment and the training and the salaries of those officers, for the public, there is no access to those videos.

“I think it’s critical and I see no reason why OHP should be exempt, absolutely none,” Fabian said. “It’s the facts surrounding arrest. It’s the very same thing every other policy agency has to do now. Every single one of them. ‘We are Highway Patrol and no one is going to tell us what to do or how to do it. We’re not going to show what we do.’ They used to give that excuse, ‘We can’t give you that because it will show our procedures.'”

News Channel 4 requested an interview with DPS Commissioner Michael Thompson multiple times to talk about that agency exemption.

The department refused our request.

OHP Captain George Brown confirms the patrol has 630 working cameras all in traffic enforcement units.

Brown says the reason for the exemption is confidentiality.

“I speak for the Highway Patrol and as the Department of Motor Vehicles we take that privacy interest very seriously,” Brown said. “It’s another reason why we withhold this video.”

“When we make traffic stops we run lots of information from that driver’s license including juvenile information so we work to secure the privacy of those that we contact,” Brown said.

Lawmakers call the exemption outrageous.

“I get very concerned when people in government seek secrecy,” Oklahoma State Senator David Holt said. “In this case they proactively went out in 2005 to get a bill passed to take something out of the public domain and you have to ask yourself, why?”

State Senator David Holt and State Representative Jason Murphey  said they value the public’s right to know.

Neither Holt nor Murphey were in office in 2005 when that exemption sailed through the legislature.

“You can look at the fact that so many other communities in Oklahoma have this level of transparency and one can seriously question whether that same level shouldn’t apply to OHP,” Murphey said. “I think the obvious answer is, it should.”

“These videos are capturing something that’s happening in public on the roadside,” Holt said. “It’s capturing very professional people, highly trained people, doing their jobs almost surely correctly so lets share that.”

It is an interesting discussion about the best way to protect Oklahoma citizens by keeping those traffic stops secret or releasing the footage to the public when requested.

The legislature may hear arguments on both sides next session.

Sen. Holt and Rep. Murphy said they plan to introduce legislation next session eliminating the OHP exemption.

MORE: Click here to find your Oklahoma legislator to voice your opinion on this issue.