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Police officer photos not public, high court rules

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   OHIO   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Aug. 12, 2005

Police officer photos not public, high court rules

  • Police officer photographs do not have to be released under the state open records law because they identify a person’s occupation as an officer, possibly compromising safety and privacy, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled this week.

Aug. 12, 2005  ·   Police officer photographs taken for government identification cards are exempt from state open records law to protect the subjects’ safety and privacy and that of their families, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The photographs “unambiguously” fall into the category of “residential and familial information” that “identifies a person’s occupation as a peace officer” and therefore are exempt from disclosure, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton wrote for the 6-1 majority.

The Plain Dealer requested police officer photographs from the Cleveland Police Department to run with stories on officer Rotary Club awards and excessive officer overtime claims in June 2003 and October 2003, respectively. The Vindicator requested officer photos from the Youngstown Police Department in October 2004 for use with a story on a 200-person riot allegedly aggravated by city misconduct.

Both newspapers sued after they were denied access to the photographs, and the cases were consolidated into one lawsuit before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The exemption at issue was passed by the Ohio General Assembly in 2000 in response to a 1998 federal appellate court ruling, Kallstrom v. Columbus, that police officers’ constitutional right to privacy protects from public disclosure certain identifying elements of their personnel files, including their driver’s license photos.

“Based on this historical context, the General Assembly could have been justifiably concerned that the disclosure of certain personal information of police officers might endanger them and their families and compromise their constitutional privacy rights,” Stratton wrote. “The city has no duty to provide copies of the photographs” to the newspapers.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented in part, writing that the exemption does not apply to photos of officers not in uniform. In his dissent, he wrote “pictures that do not depict officers in their uniforms . . . do not ‘identify the officers’ occupation as peace officers.” The accompanying “caption in a newspaper would . . . but the Plain Dealer and the Vindicator are not seeking captions; they are seeking pictures.”

“I dissent to the extent that the majority opinion enables the police departments in this case to circumvent the Public Records Act by not releasing pictures of nonuniformed police officers.”

(State ex rel. Plain Dealer Publishing Co. v. City of Cleveland; Media Counsel: David L. Marburger; Columbus, Ohio)RL

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