Two weeks ago, when protests in City Heights raged after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman assured residents that there was a record of everything that happened. SDPD officers were wearing their new body cameras, she said.
“It all boils down to community trust,” Zimmerman told KPBS.
But here’s the thing about those videos. Once again, you aren’t allowed to see them. The police department denied our formal records request for the protest footage.
On KPBS and elsewhere, Zimmerman said she would consider making police body camera videos public in certain circumstances, such as the shooting in Ferguson that left Michael Brown dead at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. But it’s becoming clear that would only happen in the most extreme situations. So far Zimmerman has denied requests to make camera footage available when officers were involved in shootings and these protests.
The reason is that SDPD doesn’t view body cameras primarily as a tool for transparency, like it was billed when city leaders began discussing the cameras in earnest earlier this year. Instead, it’s a way for the department to gather more evidence in criminal cases. This is the legal reason the department has said it’s allowed to keep all footage out of public view.
I asked police spokesman Kevin Mayer how officers getting additional evidence helps bolster community trust like Zimmerman said. Police supervisors, internal affairs investigators and the civilian review board are allowed to see the videos in certain cases.
“Having a video recording of an incident with access by those listed in Chief Zimmerman’s statement promotes public trust because it’s one additional piece of evidence to help determine the factual circumstance of an enforcement contact,” Mayer told me.
In general, the department’s body camera policy advises against recording peaceful protests. But the City Heights protests weren’t peaceful. Police officers were hit with rocks and full water bottles and officers were spit on, according to SDPD. Six protestors were arrested.
Zimmerman told KPBS that the body cameras went on when officers deemed the protest an unlawful assembly, which is consistent with department policy.
No one thinks all body camera videos should be public – an officer on his way to the restroom or interviewing a domestic violence victim hardly seems to be in the public interest.
But in certain cases, when police discharge their weapons and when protests start to get heated, people may want to know if both the police and the community acted appropriately. Zimmerman’s the one who gets to decide if the community will trust the department based on video evidence or simply her words.