The City of Lebanon denied an open records request made by LebTown for a law enforcement recording of the July 6 fatal shooting of Gunner, a 15-month-old dog, by a Lebanon police officer.
Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello had said in July that a police body-worn camera showed that the shooting was necessary, but that there were no plans to release the footage.
LebTown’s request was made under the commonwealth’s Act 22 of 2017, an open records statute that lays out the process of requesting audio and video recordings from law enforcement agencies.
The request was submitted to the city on July 18. The city used almost its entire allowed 30 days to respond and issued a denial via email on Aug. 17.
According to Act 22 guidance issued by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, agencies may deny requests if it determines any of the following criteria apply:
- Potential evidence in a criminal matter.
- Information pertaining to an investigation or a matter in which a criminal charge has been filed.
- Confidential information or victim information.
- The reasonable redaction of the recording would not safeguard potential evidence.
The city offered several reasons for its denial of the request, most generally predicated on an assertion that the recording pertains to an investigation:
The recording contains information pertaining to an investigation, including but not limited to:
- Information that if disclosed would reveal the institution, progress or result of an agency investigation;
- Information that if disclosed would deprive a person of the right to an impartial administrative adjudication; and/or
- Information that if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy
Further, the reasonable redaction of the audio recording or video recording would not safeguard potential evidence or information pertaining to an investigation.
Capello previously said that an internal investigation was underway. It’s not clear what scope that internal investigation has, or who is conducting it. Capello and Lebanon City Police Chief Todd Breiner said previously that the shooting was justified.
Act 22 specifies that denials may be made in order to protect potential evidence in a criminal matter or information pertaining to an investigation. Cruelty to animals, for example, is a criminal offense. It is possible that the officers involved in the shooting are being investigated on these grounds – or that the investigation is being used as a pretense to deny the request.
It’s not clear based on the city’s denial what person would be denied the right to an impartial administrative adjudication.
It’s also unclear whose privacy would be compromised by releasing the video.
The officers were performing official duties in public. An attorney working on behalf of the dog’s owners said that she has requested the body cam footage but did not receive a response to the request.
Under Pennsylvania law, dogs and other animals are property, and as such do not have privacy rights.
Act 22’s overriding principle is that recordings should be released if it is in the public’s interest to understand how law enforcement officers interact with the public, the interests of crime victims, law enforcement and others with respect to safety and privacy and the resources available to review and disclose the audio recording or video recording.
The city also says in the denial that the release of the footage would not “safeguard” it as potential evidence. As the recording is almost certainly a digital file, it is not readily apparent how making a copy – even a redacted copy – could compromise the original asset.
Capello and Breiner did not respond to a request made Wednesday for clarification on these points.
LebTown plans to appeal the decision.
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