Police Body Camera Videos Will Stay Private — at Least for Now

Police Body Camera Videos Will Stay Private — at Least for Now

Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego Police Lt. Dawn Summers shows a body camera being tested by the department.

Twice in recent months San Diego police officers were present at shootings while cameras on their bodies captured what happened.

But, at least for now, the Police Department says those videos won’t become public.

SDPD is gearing up to outfit all of its nearly 1,000 patrol officers with cameras in response to community concerns over racial profiling and officer misconduct. The idea behind the cameras is to protect officers from false complaints, and to provide documentation when they do behave improperly, among other reasons.

Wednesday afternoon, Chief Shelley Zimmerman told a City Council committee she hoped to have the cameras on officers in the department’s Central, Southeastern and Mid-City Divisions by the end of June with more to follow after that.

Right now, 10 officers in Central Division, which includes downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, are outfitted with cameras as part of a pilot program. An officer wearing a body camera arrived at a crime scene following an officer-involved shooting on Jan. 9 in Mount Hope. Another officer wearing a camera captured a Feb. 26 shooting downtown as well.

We filed a public records request for the videos. The department declined to release them, saying they were part of an investigation. The department said it didn’t have to release them even after the investigations ended, and gave no indication the footage would become public.

That raises a significant question: How useful could the cameras be at reassuring the community about serious police incidents when no one’s allowed to see what they capture?

That approach troubles Terry Francke, the lawyer for public records watchdog group Californians Aware. He agrees that SDPD can legally keep the records private forever. But that doesn’t mean the department can’t release them once an investigation ends. At that point, Francke said, the department has “every reason to make it public.”

“The very purpose of body cameras is to show what an officer saw — or could have seen — at the time of a disputed incident,” Francke said. “For better or worse, a public that up to now has had only the officer’s word to go on should now have the right to evaluate investigative conclusions with its own eyes.”

Indeed, transparency was a major argument when Zimmerman’s predecessor, William Lansdowne, began his public push for the cameras.

“What the camera does is a visual and verbal recording of contacts between the Police Department,” Lansdowne said in January. “Everybody gets to look at them and find out if they’re acting correctly and properly. It protects the officers as well as the citizens.”

Zimmerman told the Council committee Wednesday that the department was wading through lots of policy issues and figuring out the best way to do things. There might be different rules for public disclosure and how long the department keeps the video, she said, depending on whether the footage was related to an investigation, evidence or neither.

The department hasn’t made any final decisions on whether videos will be available through records requests.

“We’ll be exploring all that with our legal team,” police spokesman Kevin Mayer said.

Another major policy call involves when the cameras would operate. Currently, Zimmerman said officers are required to turn on the camera when they make an enforcement contact, such as a traffic stop, field interview or arrest. They would turn off the camera when the contact ends.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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11 comments
Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

Any city government in it’s right mind will resist wholesale release of tapes of officer public contract.  There are simply too many hungry attorneys in our society.  A picture doesn’t always tell the story of an encounter, but you can bet the lawsuits will skyrocket as soon as these tapes become available.

I thought Chief Zimmerman showed both wisdom and a sense of humor when she pointed out that the tapes encourage better behavior on the part of citizens as well as cops.

Let’s not make a Trayvon Martin sized flap out of this situation, OK? 

David Priver
David Priver subscriber

I heard this morning that a newborn gorilla at the zoo is fighting for its life due to respiratory problems after having been delivered by Caesarian section. The reasons for the CS I don't know, but, as a long-time OBGYN MD, I can reasonably assume that it was done electively (ie unnecessarily), as most are these days. Our Pediatric colleagues have been telling us for many years that when we do a CS in the absence of labor, newborn breathing complications are quite common. I hope that women who are anticipating an "elective" CS can be made aware that by so doing, they are increasing the likelihood of their babies having breathing problems after the birth. How sad to see this phenomenon expanding into the veterinary population.

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon memberadministrator

Pals- 


To add to this discussion, the national ACLU has a pretty good policy paper on police body cameras that attempts to balance accountability and privacy concerns. It argues (p. 5) that footage from police-involved shootings should be disclosable through a public records request. https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/police_body-mounted_cameras.pdf


Zimmerman also talked at the hearing about developing an internal policy where cameras would and wouldn't be used. For instance, the department isn't using the cameras when interviewing potential child sexual abuse victims, potential victims of sex crimes and other cases where there's an obvious expectation of privacy.

michael-leonard
michael-leonard subscriber

Videos from dashboard cameras are regularly posted online, why should bodycams be treated any differently?

And YES, Randy, the PUBLIC should be able to view these vids as a public record. As a journalist, I'm surprised at you taking an opposite view. (Or are you just devil's-advocating?)

Victor Torres
Victor Torres subscribermember

It's not that no one outside the PD gets to see them. The parties involved - the officer for defense against a civil suit or the injured person (or his/her estate in case of a death) or the defendant in a criminal case (think assault on a police officer or resisting arrest case) will always have access to this information. The judge will most likely make dissemination of such images the subject of a protective order if good cause is shown. Otherwise, there are many ways they could be used as evidence in a trial and the jury and the public would see them.

Matty Azure
Matty Azure subscriber

I'm imagining cops gathered around a monitor and viewing their shoot-em-up videos.  Much the same way they ogled Anthony Arevalos' panty collection.

Signed,

Ready, Fire, Aim

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Does the public (outside of, say, a jury) really need to see video of when a suspect -- or a cop -- is shot to death? 


And what about the privacy of ordinary citizens caught on camera, perhaps without even knowing it? 

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

@michael-leonard  It's a bit of devil-advocating, but more out of concern about death as entertainment, of these videos appearing on the Internet and being spread around like some autopsy photos have been. Closed courtroom? Sure. Out there so they show up on DeathFetishTube? No.

Tricia Lundberg
Tricia Lundberg subscribermember

@Randy Dotinga 1. yes. 2. ordinary citizens in public should have no expectation of privacy because it's public.  ~~you're welcome.

Gary Vineyard
Gary Vineyard subscriber

@Jim Jones @Bill BradshawKing or Martin doesn't matter both were blown up way out of proportion but since you mention King do you know that there was about five minutes of film that the general public never saw?  Know what it showed?  It showed King fighting the police like Mike Tyson on steroids.  Oh and BTW King was a serial criminal arrested for drugs, dui's and a host of other things before his well deserved, accidental death.  The edited film is thought to be the cause of the '92 riots in LA where 58 people were killed and two thousand were injured as well as the famous case of innocent truck driver Reginald Denny being beaten by four blacks, nearly to death.  So yeah, the public distribution of tapes should be carefully watched over.  To answer your ludicrous statement about attorneys having "...nothing to sue over..." they sue over "nothings" all the time...at great cost of not only other peoples money but their time.

michael-leonard
michael-leonard subscriber

I'm really not concerned at all about any internet idiots. Sure, they're out there, but let's not pander to the lowest denominator. I want the records available for legitimate news websites and PhotographyIsNotACrime.com.