I wanted to discuss an issue that is more relevant than it's ever been, and that's body cam footage and police accountability. Under Colorado's Open Records Act, body cam footage is classified as an open record. So when we began reporting on the shooting death of Paige Schmidt near Hotchkiss, we naturally requested the body cam footage off the camera of the Delta County deputy who shot her, apparently during a high-speed pursuit.
As you can see in the story linked above, we don't have much info — not even the name of the deputy involved. Agencies are currently allowed to withhold such open records if the records are "contrary to public interest." You can read about it all here in this lengthy document from the Colorado Best Practices Committee for Prosecutors.
Well, using the reason that the footage is "contrary to public interest," the Delta County Sheriff's Office denied our request. (Read their email response in the screenshot attached below.)
It was expected; it happens all the time that public agencies throw up roadblocks for reporters — sometimes for legitimate reasons. What would be helpful is a bit of information as to how the release of body cam footage would compromise the investigation. I don't doubt there have been threats against the deputy involved — that sort of thing happens often in cases involving an officer-involved shooting (but do those sort of threats make the footage contrary to public interest?) And lastly, while I definitely sympathize with a the grieving family members, that, in my opinion, has little to do with "public interest."
New laws for body cam footage coming in 2023
Good news for reporters and the public at large: Last year the Colorado Legislature passed a bill that will require agencies to release body cam footage, doing away with the "contrary to public interest" reason for withholding footage. Specifically, that applies when there is a complaint against an officer, but, to be clear, we don't know at this time whether there is an official complaint against the deputy involved in the local incident, but there were some questions about the incident on Facebook from family members this week. The new law doesn't go into effect until 2023. Read all about how it applies to body cameras in this report from the Freedom of Information Coalition.
What do you think about the law as it is now and how it will be beginning in 2023? Do you think the body camera footage in the Hotchkiss incident is of public interest?