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When would the San Diego Police Department release body camera footage to the public?
Maybe in the case of a riot, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said Wednesday.
Zimmerman was talking about the department’s experience with officer-worn body cameras over the first year they’ve been widely used. During that time, she’s taken an increasingly hard line on when she might make footage public. In the beginning, she said she might do it if there was a situation similar to last year’s civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
But in a recent court document arguing against the release of security camera footage from an officer-involved shooting of an unarmed mentally ill man, Zimmerman emphasized that she’d never released any footage before – save one traffic stop to show how the cameras worked – and doesn’t have any plans to.
NBC 7 San Diego’s Paul Kreuger asked Zimmerman at a press conference to clear up the discrepancy.
“There will always be exceptions,” Zimmerman said. Kreuger asked her to elaborate. She replied:
“It could be again for public safety. It could be, as we have seen in other cities where public safety is at risk, where people are damaging property, assaulting people, in a riot type situation. There could be exceptions, yes. And that’s where you’d have to weigh the public safety versus the due process of whoever that individual is.”
On its face, Zimmerman’s argument is a bit strange for a police officer tasked with keeping the peace. She’s saying that the peace must be broken for the public to get access to records captured by devices paid for with taxpayer money. And even then, releasing footage would still be her choice. Zimmerman refused to release body camera footage of protests last year in City Heights that turned violent.
Publicizing body camera footage would hurt someone’s ability to get a fair trial, Zimmerman argues. She was especially colorful in her defense of that point Wednesday, citing both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
“This isn’t about us versus them,” she said. “This is about we. We the people, which happen to be the first three words of the preamble to our Constitution. Our decision not to release video evidence is about the protection of all of our citizens.”
All of this is a far cry from what was originally pledged when the department first began talking about body cameras. During his pitch to City Council in January 2014, then-Chief William Lansdowne emphasized transparency.
“What the camera does is a visual and verbal recording of contacts between the Police Department,” Lansdowne said. “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.”
The footage also is restricted for those who have made complaints against officers. Zimmerman said Wednesday that citizens who have filed complaints will only get to see the footage of what happened if the department’s Internal Affairs unit decides to let them.