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Release the tape now

January 20, 1997

In a move that ought to be challenged immediately in court, the West Virginia State Police have said that the family of a woman killed in a high speed chase can't review a videotape of the chase. Sorry officers, but your denial holds water about as well as a brown paper bag.

Amanda Smailes, 21, of Berkeley County, W.Va., was killed last Nov. 24 when a motorist being pursued by state police rammed her car. The case brought new calls for stricter guidelines on police chases and for the use of new technology to stop fleeing motorists before they injure innocent bystanders.

However, the chase had been taped for the TV show, "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol." Larry Schultz, the attorney for Smailes' family, says police told him last week that copyright laws prevent him from viewing the tape, and the show's producers haven't said whether they plan to use it on their program.

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Regardless of what anyone says, here are the indisputable facts: Those taping the action for this for-profit television show were riding in a police car paid for by tax dollars, a car driven by an officer whose salary is paid for by the taxpayers.

If the officer didn't do the taping himself in his official capacity as a law-enforcement officer, he certainly assisted in its preparation by driving the car and performing (if that's the proper term) in the video.

Police might have an argument in favor of withholding access to the tape if it contained evidence that, if released, might jeopardize an ongoing investigation, but a suspect, Robert Lee Sparkman Jr., has already been apprehended and charged.

Finally, there's this fact: Most of the footage on these "real life" police shows portray officers in the best possible light, which is undoubtedly why the state police agreed to participate. They knew they were being taped and they fully expected the tape to air. Just because the result may not be what they expected is no justification for withholding it now.

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