There’s a lot we yet don’t know about the death of Adams County rancher Jack Yantis. And it is quite possible we will never really know the what happened in the minutes prior to or even after Yantis lost his life at the hands of Adams County and two of its sheriff’s deputies. We know that Adams County deputies had vehicle and body cameras at their disposal. It’s not certain whether the cameras were turned on at the time of the killing. That’s because the officials investigating the shooting aren’t saying, which is truly maddening and unnecessary, as evidenced by public comments made at a town hall meeting held in response to the Yantis death.
Still, while we wait for the case to unfold, government and elected officials would do well to examine their policies for handling law enforcement video. It is possible Adams County doesn’t have a recording of the Yantis incident because the county’s body camera policy doesn’t require it. The Adams County body camera policy comes under the heading of “mini cassette recorder case” and it allows the officer to decide the “wearing and usage of a cassette recorder case.” That leaves a lot to the imagination. Other law enforcement agencies have put in place policies that favor recording whenever officers are pressed into action. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued guidelines on the topic saying that “with limited exceptions, officers should be required to activate their body cameras when responding to all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters and activities that occur while the officer is on duty.”
Idaho’s law enforcement should put in place similar requirements. A modern policy would be one that dictates when video gear is to be in recording mode. The policy should also dictate how long such video is to be kept, how it is to be accessed and by whom. A carefully-crafted policy weighs the public interest in providing timely public access to a record that furthers transparency and our need to understand and review how local and state law enforcement behaves, as well as guards the privacy concerns of innocent people.
The Legislature should also weigh in, providing a minimum framework for this policy. Merely requiring all Idaho law enforcement to have in place a policy might be sufficient. Lawmakers may also need an update to the state’s public records law so that it favors disclosure in cases like this one. Minus a change to state law, if a video does exist, its release is potentially not possible because a video would likely be considered part of an investigatory record and protected from disclosure under the public records statute.
Technology is rapidly changing. The public increasingly wants government to use modern tools to hold elected officials and public employees accountable. That includes everything from video streaming of city council and county commission meetings, to providing video evidence of police on-the-job conduct. Idahoans are no different from their peers in other states in this record.
We’re still waiting to find out what happened to Jack Yantis. But some things we know: Our protocols for handling law enforcement videos are inadequate. Public trust in the people who are hired to protect us will continue to suffer until that problem is fixed.