Bill would restrict release of images, audio of police killed in the line of duty; opponents fear it will chip away at FOI laws

by George Jared ([email protected]) 578 views 

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, has introduced a bill that would limit the public’s access to audio, photographs, and video recordings of any police officer killed in the line of duty. HB1236 would make it a felony crime to disseminate these types of information to the public.

Gazaway, an attorney, told Talk Business & Politics the images and audio recordings can cause surviving family member’s extreme pain, and many are reproduced on social media sites such as YouTube.

“I see no reason why this should be available … I can’t imagine being a family member and having to re-live the murder of your loved one on a video,” Gazaway said.

Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Tom Larimer said the APA opposes the change to the state’s Freedom of Information laws. The state’s FOI Coalition, which Larimer is the chairman, hasn’t formally opposed the bill, but the majority of members are ready to do so, and he believes the Coalition will be against it if it survives committee hearings.

“The state’s FOI laws are among the best in the country,” Larimer said. “One of the reasons is because it hasn’t been amended or watered down with provisions through the years … it’s about transparency in government.”

APA specifically opposes the bill because it creates a class of people that can access the information, and a second class of people who cannot, Larimer said. District 20 State Sen. Blake Johnson sponsored the bill in the state senate.

The bill is now before the House Judiciary Committee. Gazaway first contemplated the bill after he helped to prosecute Jerry Lard, a man who was shot and killed by Trumann Police Officer Jonathan Schmidt during a traffic stop on April 12, 2011. Lard was convicted of the killing in 2012 and received a death sentence.

A video depicting the shooting was released to the public once the trial was over. The graphic video shows Schmidt at the moment he was gunned down by Lard. The video has surfaced on YouTube and has more than 340,000 hits, Gazaway said. The video is replayed more around the anniversary of the officer’s shooting, and Gazaway said he’s heard that family members have been “tagged” on it, meaning the video could show up in the relatives’ social media feeds.

“It’s a video of a murder, plain and simple,” he said.

Family members would have access to the restricted materials if the law is passed. Any record keeper that violates the law could be convicted of a class D felony. Gazaway said he realizes his bill does encroach on FOI laws, and he believes in government transparency. But, his bill is “targeted and specific,” and it only restricts FOI in a rare circumstance.

The law will allow interested parties to petition a circuit court judge to release the protected information, Gazaway said. If there is a compelling public interest, a judge could order the release of the information, he said. An example of that might be if an officer was involved in a shootout, and there were questions surrounding the circumstances of the crime, he said. The bill in no way interferes with the judicial process in these cases, he said.

Arkansas established its FOI law in 1967. Almost all government records in the state are subject to the law, meaning the state is one of the most transparent in the country, Larimer said. Criminal investigative files are not subject to FOI until charges have been filed or in some instances a case has been adjudicated. Many juvenile records, and some records filed with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission are exempt from FOI.

The FOI Coalition, a collection of journalists, publishers, college professors, broadcasters, attorneys, and others with a vested interest in governmental accountability, often have legislators present their bills before a panel at the APA office in downtown Little Rock. No attempt was made to present this bill before the Coalition, Larimer said. In most cases, the Coalition opts to oppose any infringements on the FOI laws, he said.

Fighting this bill will be tough, Larimer said. The APA Executive Director said he feels “extreme sympathy” for those families involved. He understands that many will be sympathetic to the bill, and the intentions of its sponsors. But, a bill like this could open a pathway to hinder the public’s ability to keep government officials honest.

“I really do appreciate what they’re trying to do … we need to keep government as transparent as we can, however,” Larimer said.