DUI checkpoint

In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo a police officer checks a driver's license at a sobriety check point in Escondido, Calif. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Lenny Ignelzi/The Associated Press

Now that phones with video cameras are widespread, anyone can take video of most anything at any time, including police activity.

Some of this video has justified police actions as warranted and proper. Other examples showed officers engaging in misconduct or even criminal behavior.

Rodney King’s case seems so long ago now, in part because at the time it was seen as an anomaly that someone actually had a camera to record Los Angeles police officers beating him.

Today we’re more likely to tune in to caught-on-tape TV shows that use actual police footage showing officers having to put up with belligerent drunks they’ve pulled over or with people high on something in an escalating domestic dispute, or depicting cops chasing down suspects over fences and through vacant lots.

And so it’s not really surprising to learn from a story by the Tribune’s Garin Groff that by April, 50 Mesa police officers will be taking video of officers in action as a response to the proliferation of footage taken by bystanders. Cost to taxpayers: $67,000.

Groff reported that police in Mesa are doing this to reduce meritless allegations made against police officers, in addition to providing video documentation of crime-scene evidence and things suspects do — things I’m sure that would not look good for suspects if played back in a courtroom.

Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead’s view, reported by Groff, is that what bystander video that gets broadcast by news media often fails to tell the whole story of the incident. He has a point; only the most provocative few seconds of an incident often makes it onto television news broadcasts.

We can only hope that cops who take video will avoid what some officers wrongly engage in: telling bystanders with their own cameras, who are standing on public property and a reasonable distance from the action, to stop shooting.

Examples abound locally and nationally of police informing folks, who are admittedly often sympathetic with the people whom officers are trying to detain or disperse, to turn off their cameras.

The reasons such officers often give don’t square with the First Amendment: That somehow posting video of an incident that occurred outdoors in front of several witnesses — that is, a public act — is going to somehow spill the beans on police’s ability to build a case.

More likely is that some officers just don’t like to be scrutinized, especially by some guy with a camera who probably isn’t keeping his mouth shut. But in our society the First Amendment provides the public with a valuable ability to check on the power we give police to arrest and, if the situation warrants, to use deadly force. These are potent denials of personal liberty that need to be checked on by a vigilant citizenry.

While there’s nothing wrong with what the Mesa police force is doing, an important thing to remember for these and other men and women in blue is that video they take is by law deemed to be a public record unless they can show in court that it is entitled to be kept secret.

“This is an ongoing investigation,” a time-honored police explanation for refusal to release information, alone is not enough to keep it from the public, according to a 1993 Arizona Supreme Court decision that involved this newspaper. Only a specific showing of the harm caused by the release of a record would be sufficient to keep it confidential, the state’s high court ruled.

This means that even evidence gathered via video would be and should be accessible as a public record under most circumstances. And so members of the public would be entitled to compare police footage as well as that they themselves take.

Just as police blanch at selected snippets of the public’s video of what they do reaching the news media or the Internet, so must they understand that only through access to all their footage of an incident can the public truly know whether police acted accordingly or justifiably.

A Tribune reader identified as downtownresident put it well in a comment to Groff’s story on eastvalleytribune.com: “This only makes sense if the public is given full access to the recordings. Otherwise, it’s just a propaganda tool for the police to use to make themselves look good. Full disclosure or nothing.”

It should not be far easier to get video from police when it depicts officers acting properly than video that shows that they are not. So long as the right of access by the public can be fully exercised, then the public should have little to fear from the sight of handheld police cameras.

Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries on eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

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