Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert appears to have settled on a new policy regarding public access to body-camera videos, but he says he’ll reveal the policy only when the cameras are put into use, most likely in June.
“If we had the body cameras today, I could sign that policy and be very comfortable with it,” he told a Register reporter last month.
Will the Des Moines Police Department release the videos — edited and blurred, if necessary, to protect individuals’ privacy — upon demand? Or will the agency treat them as confidential “investigative” material except when disclosure is advantageous to the police?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask, particularly since other cities are refusing to disclose videos that paint the police in an unflattering light or give rise to questions of racial profiling or excessive force.
The issue of access takes on even more weight when one considers the police department’s current policy. As things stand now, the department says photos, videos and audio recordings related to “open cases” will be disclosed only under subpoena.
And that’s not the only problem with the Des Moines Police Department’s policy on information access. Individuals asking for a report on a non-fatal accident can purchase a copy for $5 at the police department but, according to the city’s website, a business that is requesting that same report is required to purchase the record for $8 through a website called BuyCrash.com. That site is run by a private, for-profit company called Appriss. The company retains $3 for every record sold and gives $5 to the police department.
The city’s website is emphatic that unless a company representative shows up in person at the police department, “all requests from businesses for Des Moines, Ia., accident reports will be referred to BuyCrash.com,” and the department “will not provide accident reports to businesses” unless BuyCrash.com doesn’t have the documents for sale.
The city has clearly established a two-tiered pricing structure, one for individuals and one for businesses. But when asked about the legality of it, Philiph says the policy described on the website for the past 16 months is “maybe not as accurate as it could be.” He says he believes businesses don’t really have to go through BuyCrash.com to access the records.
He also says, inexplicably, that “the fee for the record is the same whether purchased at the Des Moines Police Department or through BuyCrash.com.” But clearly, the police department’s $5 fee is not “the same” as the $8 fee charged by Appriss.
So far, the city has collected more than $33,000 through this arrangement. From the city’s perspective, this probably looks like “found money” and an easy way to turn one aspect of law enforcement into a revenue-generating tool. But accident reports, like all government records, are created and archived at the taxpayers’ expense. That’s why Iowa law stipulates government agencies can charge citizens a fee for access to records, but those fees “shall not exceed the actual cost of providing the service.”
In this case, the Des Moines police and the city’s legal staff have set up a process through which a third party, Appriss, generates a profit for itself by processing record requests at $8 each.
It’s disconcerting that the city’s legal staff would not only approve this arrangement, but argue that it complies with the state’s Open Records Law in several respects. And their explanation for requiring subpoenas for audio-visual records doesn’t bode well for the department’s handling of body-camera videos.
Chief Wingert might have some rationale for embracing policies in which public information is disclosed only to those wielding a subpoena or a MasterCard. But if he does, he’s keeping it secret — which is entirely consistent with the policies themselves.