PROVIDENCE — State prosecutors can advise police to release videos from body-worn cameras before trials, according to an opinion from the state Supreme Court’s ethics advisory panel, released Wednesday. But police may not make comments about the videos beyond the facts.
The advisory opinion clears away a hurdle for public requests to see videos in cases where officers use force.
It’s a question that came up this summer, after Attorney General Peter F. Neronha expanded his ability to review cases where police use force to include those in which excessive force was used or serious bodily injury was caused. Though he required police officers to consult with his office about any public-records requests for videos in these cases, Nerohna soon realized that it wasn’t clear what advice prosecutors could give.
The videos are a matter of transparency and accountability, and so the public expects to see them. However, he rules of professional conduct prohibit prosecutors from engaging in pretrial publicity, leading to confusion about what could be released publicly.
Neronha told the Globe in October that he sought the advisory opinion because he wanted to be able to tell police departments that they could publicly release the videos. Until then, prosecutors were telling police they couldn’t advise them to turn over the videos in pending criminal cases.
That issue snowballed this year, after a Providence police sergeant was charged in May with assaulting a handcuffed man and the former head of the Providence External Review Authority, a civilian review board, in November decided on his own to release the videos from the encounter.
The release of the videos and the publicity surrounding them prompted the police sergeant, Joseph Hanley, to move to have his case dismissed. The attorney general’s office rejected that argument, and so did the judge, who said he hadn’t seen the videos and could be fair and impartial in deciding Hanley’s case.
The advisory panel’s opinion on Dec. 15 was that it wouldn’t violate the rules of professional conduct for prosecutors to advise police to release the body-worn cameras in response to public records requests.
If they do, the panel said, prosecutors should also advise the police to only state the facts about the videos, and not make extrajudicial statements that could prejudice the court proceedings or heighten public condemnation of the accused.
The attorney general’s office said Wednesday that it would use the advisory opinion to update its protocol on these use-of-force cases.
“While this opinion addresses our ethical duties under the Rules of Professional Conduct, it does not relieve this Office from our duty to consider the due process rights of the accused when deciding whether to release, or to advise police departments to release, body-worn camera footage pre-trial,” Neronha’s office said in an email. “The issue of the potential impact of pretrial publicity on a pending prosecution must be balanced against the public’s interest in transparency and police accountability, which are always at their highest when it comes to police use of force cases.”
Neronha said his office and the police would determine whether to release the videos by considering whether the investigation was substantially complete, and whether releasing the videos would be unlikely to interfere with the investigation. The videos would be accompanied with a disclaimer that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
The police also have to make sure that the videos don’t cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy, disclose the identity of a confidential informant or police tactics, or endanger anyone’s life or safety.