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A police force that’s faced a barrage of misconduct allegations and concerns about its internal controls wants you to trust those controls as it outfits officers with body cameras.
About 300 San Diego officers are now mandated to record arrests and enforcement-related interactions with the public and the police department plans to equip all its officers with cameras by the end of next year.
But Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who has been a proponent of the camera program amid misconduct and racial profiling scandals in an effort to increase the public’s trust, said Tuesday night the footage they collect likely won’t be released to the public anytime soon.
“The video footages are considered evidence,” Zimmerman said during a panel discussion organized by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “And at this point, in the policy, I don’t plan to release any of the video with it because it is considered evidence.”
Legal experts have said SDPD could legally keep the video footage private indefinitely, even after an investigation wraps.
The department’s policy was revealed when Voice of San Diego requested footage from two police shootings this spring. The department didn’t release the videos, citing ongoing investigations.
Many other police agencies across the nation have decided otherwise. They’re releasing footage of fatal officer shootings and other incidents.
I moderated the Tuesday event at Lincoln High School and pressed Zimmerman and four other panelists on SDPD’s policy, particularly given allegations of sexual assault and concerns about racial profiling within the department in recent history.
Police in San Diego and elsewhere have purchased cameras to add accountability. But if the department isn’t releasing footage, aren’t they just expecting residents to take them at their word?
Zimmerman and officials from the San Diego American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial counties, the local NAACP branch, the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association and the San Diego Police Officers Association said privacy for both officers and citizens who encounter them generally outweighs the public’s right to see footage.
For example, local ACLU policy director Margaret Dooley-Sammuli said, footage of a person acting silly while an officer checks on whether they’re intoxicated wouldn’t serve the public interest.
But it’s not even clear whether civilians directly involved in an incident captured by police cameras can see the footage — for now their ability to do so largely hinges on whether their attorney has subpoenaed the footage for a case and whether they’ve filed a complaint with the department, though SDPD is still weighing how the latter scenario would work.
Zimmerman said there is a potential exception to the general rule against releasing the footage, though it’s totally up to her whether it comes into play.
The department might release the footage if it faced a crisis like the one police are experiencing in Ferguson, Mo., where massive protests erupted after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by an officer.
“(In Ferguson, Mo.), they’re seeing the property damage, assaults that are going on there, and so I think the public wants information on exactly what happened, so if you take a situation like that and that body-worn camera can tell exactly what happened then that would be something that would be very positive because right now in that situation, no one really knows what happened,” Zimmerman said.
But again, the latest version of the Police Department’s policy leaves that decision up to Zimmerman or the next chief.
There’s no way to know for sure whether the department avoids releasing video footage that shows its officers acted inappropriately, or if it’s holding onto footage that might reveal serious problems. Zimmerman said police supervisors are checking to ensure officers record interactions per department rules and that the footage will be reviewed when residents file complaints against the department.
But a general policy not to release footage means police are simply asking us to trust them on this.