FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt has issued another opinion saying the City of Fort Wayne and the Fort Wayne Police Department (FWPD) failed to give access to public records.
“It is the opinion of this office that the Ft. Wayne Police Department violated the Access to Public Records Act (APRA),” Britt wrote in his opinion released Wednesday.
APRA is a state law that says records held by government agencies are “presumed to be
accessible for inspection or copying by any member of the public unless exempted by law.”
Britt’s first ruling in December 2022 triggered the city to release police bodycam and dashcam video of the OWI arrest of Mayor Tom Henry. The city initially denied multiple media requests.
The new opinion from Britt stemmed from the “hip toss” arrest of Omar Ortiz in January.
A viewer sent a viral cellphone video of the arrest to WANE 15, which seemed to show an officer slamming Ortiz to the ground. The FWPD said the officer’s actions aligned with their training policy.
WANE 15 asked the city to provide additional police video to provide context of the arrest, but that request was shot down, as the city claimed disclosure of the requested records may affect an ongoing investigation but offered no additional information or explanation.
However, Britt found that insufficient.
While the law allows exceptions, the exceptions cannot be invoked for “arbitrary or capricious reasons,” he wrote in his new opinion.
“Here, we have police interaction recorded by both a body worn camera as well as a citizen’s recording device. [WANE 15] has a copy of the citizen recording … Fort Wayne would be well served to recognize that the footage captured by these cameras is regulated by the Access to Public Records Act and not the public safety statutes. This means the legislature intended the footage to serve a dual purpose as an accountability and accessibility tool.
“Absent a credible qualification, the exceptions cited here ring hollow and are indeed arbitrary,” Britt wrote.
“Based on the foregoing, it is the opinion of this office that the Ft. Wayne Police Department violated the Access to Public Records Act by failing to carry the agency’s burden of nondisclosure as required by law.”
The opinion is not a legal ruling, and Britt has no authority to force Fort Wayne to release investigatory records or police footage.
After the ruling, WANE 15 again asked the city for the bodycam video.
City attorney Malak Heiny said Britt’s opinion and new request had been sent to the FWPD for review.
Ortiz has a change of plea hearing scheduled for May 15.