The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that photographs of police officers may be shielded under state public records law, raising newspapers’ concerns that police departments might stop releasing incident reports or any records that name an officer.
City attorneys and a police union official said no such movement to withdraw already public records is afoot.
The court unanimously rejected lawsuits by The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and The (Youngstown) Vindicator, which were seeking photos of officers. The newspapers were backed by other media organizations including The Associated Press.
The ruling said the photos fall within an exemption in the public records law that shields any records identifying a person’s occupation as a law enforcement officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician.
The newspapers had accepted that the exemption would apply to photographs. Still, they argued that the law is so broadly worded, it could prevent anyone from ever identifying an officer – even citizens trying to identify officers they want to accuse of misconduct.
The justices focused only on photographs and ignored the larger issue of how the law applies to other records, said Fred Gittes, who represented The Vindicator.
“They are basically creating a situation where police departments will make the broadest interpretation of the courts, saying, hey, if it applies to photos, it applies to everything,” Gittes said.
The justices said they had no choice. “When a statute is unambiguous in its terms, courts must apply it rather than interpret it,” said the opinion written by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.
The cities say the ruling had nothing to do with other records.
The ruling simply protects the safety of officers who might go undercover, said Tom Kaiser, chief trial counsel for the Cleveland Law Department.
“There’s no grand plan to start withholding everything,” he said.
Attorney David Marburger said he would recommend that media organizations urge lawmakers to change the wording of the law. Frank Deaner, lobbyist for the Ohio Newspaper Association, said he was working with lawmakers to accomplish that.