Bill seeks improved public records access

Information subject to the Nebraska Public Records Act would be more accessible under a bill considered Feb. 25 by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist26' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Matt Hansen'>Sen. Matt Hansen</a>
Sen. Matt Hansen

LB557, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen, would add police body camera recordings that involve the death of an individual being apprehended or in law enforcement custody to the list of public records under the act.

Current law allows agencies to charge for staff time required to retrieve public records if the request takes more than four hours to fulfill. LB557 would lengthen that time from four hours to eight for Nebraska residents and the news media. The bill also would require custodians of public records to attest under oath to the estimated cost of fulfilling a records request.

Hansen said the provision to make police body camera footage available is “vital” in cases when an individual dies.

“Making any video available quickly could help ease the [public’s] concerns by providing a specific account of what happened directly to the public,” Hansen said.

Spike Eickholt of the ACLU of Nebraska testified in support of the bill. The media and Nebraskans are sometimes “priced out” of access to public records, he said, meaning that such records functionally are not public.

“[Residents] ought to have some greater right of access to those public records that you have the privilege of paying for,” Eickholt said.

Also in support was Korby Gilbertson, who testified on behalf of Media of Nebraska. In written testimony, Gilbertson said the bill would give the public greater access to public information that entities are required to provide.

“Providing public records should not be a revenue generating enterprise for custodians,” Gilbertson said.

Ken Schilz, speaking on behalf of the Consumer Data Industry Association, testified in opposition to LB557. The bill would increase costs for data collection agencies, he said, which may be located out of state but often are retrieving records for Nebraska residents, such as information used to calculate credit scores.

“Nebraskans need CDIA’s members to be able to affordably access public records,” Schilz said.

Christy Abraham, speaking on behalf of the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the Nebraska Power Association, also testified against LB557. She said the current four hour provision is working well.

“If it’s going to take a [county] clerk half of her work day to fulfill a request, maybe she can do that; if it’s going to be an entire day of her time to fulfill a public records request, that’s pretty burdensome,” Abraham said. “We have a lot of clerks that only work 10 hours a week total.”

Also in opposition was Steve Cerveny of the Omaha Police Department. Releasing police body camera footage could taint a jury pool and cause a “rush to judgement,” he said.

“Allowing immediate release of footage related to an in-custody death can derail the process of justice by fracturing the ability to obtain and deliver the truth,” Cerveny said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB557.

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