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Governor, local leaders celebrate law that restricts public access to police line-of-duty death recordings

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Local and state leaders gathered at the Tulsa Police Memorial on Monday to celebrate the ceremonial signing of a bill spurred by the 2020 line-of-duty death of Sgt. Craig Johnson.

Senate Bill 968, introduced by Sen. John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, and House-sponsored by Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, alters the Oklahoma Open Records Act to limit the public’s access to police recordings of line-of-duty deaths.

Johnson, a police supervisor, was fatally shot during an overnight traffic stop in east Tulsa in June 2020. Officer Aurash Zarkeshan also was shot.

The murder, for which a Tulsa County jury convicted David Ware in April, was captured on each officer’s body camera as well as on one patrol vehicle’s dash camera.

Prosecutors successfully delayed the release of the videos for a time, arguing that their release could compromise the defendant’s right to a fair trial, but a judge ordered them released in September 2020 subject to the Open Records Act and to clear up a discrepancy in the Tulsa Police Department’s version of events, which did not match the footage.

Oklahoma’s Open Records Act already allowed law enforcement agencies to redact or obscure any footage depicting a death or body, but Johnson died the day after the recording of the footage at issue. The Police Department released the videos depicting his mortal wounding during a press conference in which Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin lamented the requirement to do so and joined Mayor G.T. Bynum in urging the public to refrain from watching.

Dills told a gaggle of reporters that the bill was negotiated to balance several factors.

“We need to make sure that we are always protecting the dignity of our officers who do so much for us — the dignity of their families,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re not further desensitizing our young people in our culture when they’re already desensitized, and also we needed to make sure that we had adequate transparency for the public and for all those involved, and we feel like we have that in this bill.”

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SB 968 allows law enforcement agencies to deny public access to any video or audio recordings that depict the death of an officer acting in the course of their duties, including events immediately before or after the acts that caused the death, except where a court rules otherwise in the name of public interest.

The law also gives agencies the authority to allow specific family members of the deceased to view the recordings regardless of whether they are made public.

The new addition to the law notes that it should not be construed to prohibit attorneys’ access to the recordings in the course of legal proceedings, which was a point of contention in the early stages of Ware’s case.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who is running for reelection in November, officially signed the bill in August but attended the ceremonial event with honor, he said. Signing the bill’s facsimile with several pens, he passed them off to some of those in attendance, including Zarkeshan and Kristi Johnson, Sgt. Johnson’s widow.

Stitt said the changes are intended to protect the privacy of decedents’ families, giving them “the respect they deserve and the ability to mourn” while also allowing the footage to be entered into evidence.

Zarkeshan, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in the shooting, testified during Ware’s trial that he had no independent memory of the traffic stop and hadn’t watched the video.

He stood with his arm around Kristi Johnson at the event before stepping forward to thank the governor and legislators for attempting to restrict access to such videos.

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,” he said. “I don’t want to see my friend be killed.”

Franklin, standing before the ranks of two current Tulsa Police Academy classes, joined Zarkeshan in thanking the legislators for their efforts and said he’s grateful for the changes the amendment is intended to bring.

“We don’t want to have to use it, but it is there just in case we have to,” the chief said.

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Staff Writer

I write because I care about people and peace, and I believe the most informed people make the best decisions. I joined the Tulsa World in 2019 to cover breaking news, and I currently cover crime and courts. Phone: 918-581-8455

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